Carolina Journal News Reports
Bryan Anderson, a Marine combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, told the Wake County Commission he helped develop mass transit in those war-torn countries but can't vote on implementing a tax to expand those services in his home county.
RALEIGH — Some three dozen people delivered impassioned pleas Monday afternoon to the Wake County Board of Commissioners, urging them to place a half-cent sales tax on the November ballot.
Their appeals fell on deaf ears. By a 4-3, party-line vote, in a meeting lasting more than five hours, the Republican-led commission voted not to convene a public hearing about the tax increase — a necessary precursor to a vote placing the measure on the ballot.
The tax would have funded a transit plan supporters say would reduce pollution, traffic congestion, and land use tied to highways and parking. Backers also say rail transit would empower elderly, low-income and student populations to be more mobile and better connected to the community.
Durham County approved the sales tax last year. Orange County will vote on the tax in November. Without Wake County's support, it's unclear how far-reaching the fixed-rail portion of the regional transit plan would be.
Wake County Director of Elections Cherie Poucher told Carolina Journal she had cautioned commissioners against placing the referendum on the ballot.
"We don’t have room on the ballot spacewise ... because of the number of contests that are on the general election ballot,” Poucher said. For example, Cary has three bond questions and the community college bond referendum.
"The ballot stock we’re using is longer than we’ve ever used before. It is the largest ballot stock that can be used," Poucher said.
Printing a second ballot would cost $150,000 — 15 cents per ballot for 1 million ballots — and likely would create confusion for both poll workers and voters, she said. Precinct workers would require extra training, more workers would have to be hired to handle the additional workload of two ballots amid already heavy turnout for the presidential election, and it is unclear if the software system is capable of reconciling two ballots locally and with the state's tabulation system, Poucher said.
Commissioners mostly sat stoically as speakers vented their frustrations. N.C. State University student Katie Hamilton told commissioners students at the six colleges and universities in Wake County grew up in the suburbs relying on parents for transportation. They now “desire freedom from those cars” in a walkable community with greater transit opportunities. Lack of transit is pushing her and other students to move elsewhere, she said.
“Deliver me from any government that thinks it has to protect me” by disallowing a taxation measure to be voted on by referendum, said Anne Franklin, representing Capital Area Friends of Transit. “Please, no more blue ribbon panels,” stalling or waiting out the clock.
Franklin said the transit plan has been presented twice to all 12 municipalities in the county and to more than 1,500 citizens, who have signed petitions seeking to place the half-cent sales tax on the ballot.
“In summary, delay says that we are afraid of the public,” she said, echoing a common refrain among advocates, who greatly outnumbered opponents at the meeting.
“It’s just too much of a monstrosity and the taxpayers do not want to do that,” Raleigh resident Russell Capps said of the light rail component. He elicited a chorus of groans and a flurry of hand-raising when he posited that few of the advocates in the room use the mass transit they are championing.
“Nowhere in the country can you tell me a system where it is operating profitably,” Capps said, urging commissioners to continue studying the matter before placing it on the ballot.
In response to supporters’ claims that light rail is an operating success story in other cities around the country, Michael Sanera, director of research and local government analyst at the John Locke Foundation, told commissioners that is not the case at all.
“Those cities are spending millions if not billions of dollars on rail transit that does not carry any passengers,” Sanera said. One reason riders are staying away in droves is because door-to-door travel time on light rail is two to four times longer than a trip by automobile, he said.
Nor does light rail reduce the congestion and air pollution that advocates tout. For example, he said, statistics show that Charlotte light rail, per passenger mile, “uses more energy than the average automobile and twice the energy of a Toyota Prius. The facts are not on the side of rail transit in this community.”
Sanera said JLF engaged experts to study the transit plan.
“This plan will not cost $4.6 billion,” as projected, Sanera said. “It will cost much more, and Charlotte is finding out the hard way.” He urged commissioners to hire independent consultants to study the matter rather than relying on numbers provided by transit officials with a vested interest in the plan.
“This plan is not efficient, practical or economically sustainable,” and is the wrong approach during this period of economic malaise, said opponent Paul Fitts. A better approach would be smaller buses and the use of natural gas, he said.
Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane, speaking on behalf of mayors in Rolesville, Garner, Fuquay Varina, Morrisville, Wake Forest, Holly Springs, Knightdale, Apex, and Cary, said they were not taking a position on the transit plan.
“We would request that the commissioners put this on your agenda” and decide whether the plan will be pursued, McFarlane said. “Transportation is a key factor in municipal planning” and cities and towns can’t prepare their budgets and priorities without knowing where the county stands on the sales tax increase.
Suzanne Black of Cary, associate state director of AARP, co-chairwoman of the Safe Driving Coalition, and a former Moore County director of aging, said Wake County’s population is aging — there are 99,000 AARP members.
“Public transportation becomes ever more important” to allow seniors to get to medical appointments, shopping trips, visits to friends, families and churches, and light rail and expanded bus service is essential to accommodate them, Black said.
Bryan Anderson, a vice president of Merrill Lynch and Marine Corps veteran who served three combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, said he earned a Bronze Star for transportation and infrastructure projects he helped to develop in those war-torn countries. He noted the irony that the Taliban-heavy Helmand Province in Afghanistan has transit that Wake County does not.
“Are we afraid of democracy? Do we wish to hide behind parliamentary procedure” in refusing to allow the referendum vote, Anderson asked.
Betty Ellerbee of Raleigh, speaking on behalf of the League of Women Voters, also prodded the commissioners to allow a vote on the issue, to no avail.
Dan E. Way is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.