News: CJ Exclusives

Orange County Commission Likely to Move Transit Plan Forward

Board expected to approve $1.4 billion light-rail proposal; tax vote to follow

HILLSBOROUGH – The Orange County Board of Commissioners is expected Tuesday to approve a $1.4 billion light-rail project for Durham and Orange counties and vote June 5 on a half-cent sales tax to fund the controversial transit plan.

“I think we have a majority of the board” that favors putting the issue before voters on a Nov. 8 ballot referendum, Chairwoman Bernadette Pelissier said May 4, a day after the commissioners met in work session to further refine a draft cost-sharing agreement with Durham County and Triangle Transit Authority.

“We vote on the transit plan and then it’s up to the public to tell us whether or not they want to do this,” Pelissier said, acknowledging there will be differences of opinion among voters.

But what Pelissier called a historic “tension between urban and rural Orange County” guarantees the vote will not be unanimous.

“I do not believe we have the population density, nor do I believe we have the tax base to support [light rail],” Commissioner Earl McKee said. “I don’t think that it is the best plan for the current conditions. I think we need to look at expanding bus systems.”

“This plan focuses the great majority of the funds to a light rail system that will serve a very small percentage of residents of Orange County and an equally small percentage of the geography of Orange County,” McKee said.

Durham County approved a half-cent sales tax in 2011, but has delayed collecting it until voters in either Orange or Wake counties, or both, also vote to tax themselves for the expanded transit services. Wake County is part of the regional rail concept but has not decided whether to put the matter up for a referendum.

The proposed 17.3-mile light-rail passenger service would run from the University of North Carolina campus in Chapel Hill to East Durham along N.C. Highway 54. It would be managed, built, and operated by TTA. There would be 17 rail stations, four in Orange County.

Other key components of the plan are expanding bus service in the county (notably in undeveloped portions) and to Durham, Raleigh, and elsewhere; construction of an intercity rail station in Hillsborough to accommodate Amtrak service; and building a dedicated bus lane on Martin Luther King Boulevard in Chapel Hill.

According to the cost-share agreement, Durham would be responsible for nearly $1.1 billion and Orange for $316.2 million. Those amounts include federal matches of 50 percent and state allocations of 25 percent. Durham would pay the higher amount of the roughly 77-23 percent funding split. Maintenance costs would be split at the same percentage.

Food, medical supplies, gas, and utilities would be exempt from the sales tax should voters approve the measure in the general election.

Rental car taxes and a $10 annual vehicle registration fee would help to pay for the project.

Should those revenues be insufficient to pay the capital costs, Orange is not obligated to pay more. The agreement calls for a meeting to address any shortfall, with potential solutions being a schedule delay, a scaled-down light-rail project, a combination of the two, or discontinuing the light-rail project.

The agreement runs through June 2035.

Pelissier said commissioners will consider the Orange County Transit Plan, a plan to finance it, a cost-sharing pact with Durham County, and an implementation agreement with Triangle Transit Authority at their May 15 meeting.

Representatives of the Regional Transportation Alliance, a coalition of business, Chamber of Commerce, planning, government, and transit officials, will attend the May 15 meeting. They will present a report on the level of voter support for the transit plan.

A pollster will conduct the survey in coming days, Pelissier said.

In a Q&A attachment to the agreement posted on Orange County’s website, the county says the transit plan is needed is to accommodate anticipated growth. By 2030, the state demographer predicts up to 1 million new residents will live in the Triangle by 2030, 40,000 of them in Orange County.

Light rail and bus service will be needed to better manage growth, increase economic development, preserve the natural environment, reduce stress and wear on roads, and enhance the quality of life as population booms and 29,000 new jobs are created in the county, 97 percent of which will be in Hillsborough, Chapel Hill, and Carrboro, the document states.

The light-rail transit has a $1.378 billion capital costs price tag through 2035, with “more accurate capital costs” to come as the project progresses in future years, according to the agreement.

The light-rail corridor runs along N.C. Highway 54 because about a quarter of car and transit commuters to UNC use that route. About 17 percent of car commuters use I-40 to Martin Luther King Boulevard, and about the same percent of commuters use Routes 15-501.

McKee said constituents in northern Orange County are telling him they will not support a referendum, and that will drive his vote on whether to put the measure on the Nov. 8 ballot.

“I’m going to vote no. I have voted no on this plan for the past two months due to the fact I am adamantly opposed to this light-rail project,” McKee said.

Pelissier said it is important to put the matter before voters.

“Even if you’re not in favor of it as a commissioner — and I am in favor of it — it’s not our vote,” Pelissier said. “We owe it to the voters to tell us whether or not they approve.”

Dan Way is a contributor to Carolina Journal.