Carolina Journal News Reports
RALEIGH — Wake County’s decision not to put a half-cent sales tax referendum on the Nov. 6 general election ballot “is troubling” to Durham County officials, and will affect how they move forward with a tri-county regional transit plan featuring a mixture of light rail and expanded bus service.
“We’d not said we’d [move forward] if Orange approved it or if Wake approved it. The only thing we said is we would not do it until the other counties had a referendum,” said Durham County Manager Mike Ruffin. “Our board would probably wait until Wake decides” before moving ahead on Durham’s component of the transit plan.
Durham voters approved a half-cent sales tax last November, but the county will not impose it until the other counties vote. The Orange County Board of Commissioners voted in early June to place a half-cent sales tax referendum before voters in the November election.
But on a 4-3 party-line vote, Wake’s majority GOP commissioners voted June 18 not to continue the process required to get the tax on the ballot this year.
Under the fastest timetable, the full rollout of light rail remains more than a decade away. The Wake commission’s decision may have scuttled that schedule.
“Wake’s still holding out is troubling,” Ruffin said. “My position would be let’s wait for Wake to decide one way or another” before moving forward with the plan.
However, he said, the county could choose to collect its tax while waiting for Wake’s referendum.
“If Orange approves it, based on what our board said, it certainly could be discussed,” Ruffin said of levying the tax.
But downsizing the project to two counties would pose complications.
“Our transit plan assumes three counties … are going to be working together,” Ruffin said.
Even if Orange County voters approve the sales tax, it “still would require some reworking of our transit plan,” Ruffin said.
When Orange County Commissioners voted June 5 to place the sales tax on the ballot by a 5-2 vote, the dissenting commissioners voiced similar comments. They unsuccessfully argued that without Wake in the mix, the plan was no longer a superior regional approach to mass transit, and that too many uncertainties and unfinished agreements remained to push forward.
In the worst-case scenario, Ruffin said, “If both [Orange and Wake] put it on the ballot and both failed, our board would discuss what we would want to do in Durham and what is feasible.”
Durham could collect enough from its tax to run commuter rail to Research Triangle Park during peak commuter hours and launch some expanded bus hours, but it would be a “very small-scale, abbreviated implementation of our original plan,” Ruffin said.
“I don’t know whether that’s the right thing to do or the feasible thing to do,” he said.
Ruffin supported Wake County’s desire to study the transit plan further.
“What I see going on in Wake is very healthy” with bipartisan debate because the plan is very complex, he said.
Even with an all-Democrat board, “It still had a lot of debate here before it saw the light of day, and, I think, deservedly so,” Ruffin said.
Before the Wake commission’s vote, 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.
Printing a second ballot would cost $150,000 and likely would create confusion for both poll workers and voters, Poucher 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.
David King, Triangle Transit Authority general manager, was discouraged but not surprised with the Wake vote and said it is not a fatal blow.
“We’ll continue to work with Wake County to resolve any questions when the commissioners decide to finally take the issue up. We’re trying to be as flexible as possible as these counties move along with these” votes, King said.
Should the transit plan get all the necessary approvals, some new bus service could be launched in four to six months, he said.
Plans in all three counties are similar — launching all new bus routes within three to five years, during which time plans would proceed for the light rail portions to identify environmental and public impacts. Meantime, preliminary engineering to select best routes would commence.
A federal full-funding agreement is expected to be negotiated in the early 2020s, with a 2023 start date for construction.
“Sometime roughly in 2026 ... the ribbon would be cut and the service inaugurated” for light rail, King said. “In the meantime, we would hope that development decisions would be made by both the public and private sectors” to fill in commercial, retail, and residential additions along the rail corridor, King said.
Dan Way is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.