2016 Outstanding Project of the Year Nominee – Wake County Transit Plan
For many years, Wake County worked toward developing a plan for the next stage of transit growth. The most recent effort, the Wake County Transit Plan of 2012, reflected a desire to introduce both an improved countywide network and a core rapid transit corridor—goals that may still be widely supported. However, the plan attracted questions and criticism from several quarters. Stakeholders were divided and objections were numerous. County Commissioners called for a fresh look at transit in Wake County. Our team’s approach to this project differed from common plan approaches in a variety of ways. Most importantly, our plan is a story about how life can and will be better in the community. It is not just a set of technical proposals with quantified outcomes.
Kimley-Horn, along with Jarrett Walker + Associates, developed a plan for enhanced transit in Wake County. As the largest county in the Research Triangle region, the home of the capital city of Raleigh, and one of the fastest growing counties in America, Wake was experiencing intense growth pressures and transportation challenges. Past efforts to develop a transit plan for Wake County resulted in a lack of consensus and failure to move forward by County leaders. As a result, Kimley-Horn and Jarrett Walker created an approach that engaged key stakeholders in an intense, reality-based outreach program that brought important issues to the forefront early and challenged the community to make the tough but critical decisions along the way, rather than postponing them and leading to inevitable disappointment and discord. Extensive education was another important aspect of the project approach.
The team began with a kickoff meeting in Raleigh that was attended by approximately 500 people and widely hailed as a great success and strong start to the process. This was followed by the creation of a “Transit Choices” document that the community interacted with and learned from during the public outreach phase of the project. Ultimately, the Advisory Committee and core professional staff developed four network plans that demonstrated key differences representing the trade-offs that the Wake County community had to consider as the final plan was developed. The trade-offs included a focus on ridership vs. coverage and how to balance funding on infrastructure and spending on service. Kimley-Horn and Wake County shared the Recommended Wake County Transit Plan with the public on Tuesday, December 8, 2015.
The planning process brought together a broad and diverse group of stakeholders (including many elected officials) in a steering committee with real decision-making roles in the process, educated those stakeholders on transit planning and challenged them to examine the tough questions early and throughout the process, and educated the public and challenged them to also weigh in on those difficult trade-offs. This approach resulted in a plan that is visionary yet fiscally responsible, is based on a schedule where real improvement can be envisioned in a reasonable time horizon, and has buy-in from diverse groups and leaders across the county.
After decades of on-again, off-again transit planning in Wake County, residents finally have a plan they can vote on this year after only 12 months of planning and public engagement. The plan calls for heavy investment in two types of infrastructure not prevalent in North Carolina today: Commuter Rail and Bus Rapid Transit, includes a strong emphasis on a “Frequent Network” that will serve urban parts of the county with all-day all-week frequent service, and provides matching funds to help smaller towns in the county to initiate their own local service.
Although the public engagement techniques were applied in a transit context in this study, there is significant applicability of similar methods to any large community trade-off or prioritization process. The planning team brought together previously antagonistic groups in the Advisory Committee and the Transit Core Team. Diverse participation and representation were critical to the success of the plan and contributed to the stakeholder buy-in that was missing in past attempts to formally plan for transit within the county. This strategy of early engagement and diverse stakeholder representation would be applicable in many locales and environments around the country. Dealing with the difficult trade-offs early rather than avoiding them, bringing together diverse and sometimes opposing parties into leadership roles on the project, and educating stakeholders and the public throughout the process are methods that can help lead to successful and well accepted transportation plans wherever they are applied.