Published: May 19, 2012 07:00 PM
Modified: May 18, 2012 03:46 PM
CHAPEL HILL - Orange County is inching closer to consensus on a regional transit plan that could create a light rail system, expand bus service, and connect the county to the rest of the Triangle.
The Board of County Commissioners approved the regional transit plan “in principle” Tuesday night, contingent upon the approval of an implementation agreement with Triangle Transit Authority.
Commissioners voted 4-3 to support the plan’s general tenets and submit changes on specifics to Triangle Transit. Commissioners Earl McKee, Steve Yuhasz and Alice Gordon voted against the plan, arguing that more time and transparency were needed to absorb public input and confirm cost figures.
“We are doing a disservice to the citizen in Orange County in obligating them to a tax that does not stop,” McKee said. “We do not at this point understand what we’re adopting.”
Gordon said she supports the plan and the half-cent sales tax referendum to fund it, but said there are still too many unanswered questions.
“I’ve worked for decades on this. I want to have it put on the referendum, but I don’t feel this is the proper procedure,” she said. “It’s just not transparent and it’s not due diligence.”
The Orange County transit plan describes how Triangle Transit will spend the sales tax revenue from the half-cent increase, if Orange County voter approve it in November.
The plan includes a light rail line that would connect Chapel Hill at UNC Hospitals to Durham at Alston Avenue, expanded bus service throughout rural and urban Orange County, dedicated bus lanes on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Chapel Hill and new park and ride lots and a train station in Hillsborough.
The plan would also implement a $7 vehicle tag fee and a $3 increase to the current Triangle Transit tag fee.
Commissioners questioned Triangle Transit officials on seeming inconsistencies on the costs of the plan for nearly three hours Tuesday night. Officials acknowledged several typos in cost estimates in the draft plan and assured commissioner they would be fixed.
Commissioners Valerie Foushee, Bernadette Pelissier and Barry Jacobs supported the broad contents of the plan and said it’s time to move ahead.
“The train needs to leave the station and there may need to be some adjustments, but I think it’s time to move forward,” Jacobs said. “I’m ready to put it on the ballot so the voters of Orange County can tell us what they want to do.”
Commissioners will send the plan back to Triangle Transit for revisions on the finances. The county will also establish a formal implementation agreement with the group to determine how the money from the sales tax revenue is spent. The board voted 6-1 to levy an implementation agreement. McKee dissented.
“I really do support adopting this in principle because there are so many members of the public who have been waiting,” said Pelissier. “No plan will be perfect but (I want) to send a message the public that we are ready to move forward.”
Commissioners also approved a cost-share agreement for the plan with Durham, 5-2. Commissioners McKee and Yuhasz voted against the agreement.
McKee opposed the agreement, and said he had heard that not passing it would be a deal-breaker.
“We’ve been held over a barrel for this one,” he said.
Durham County commissioners approved the agreement during their meeting last week. The counties would split costs based on what each gets: Orange County would pay $79.5 million; Durham County, $265.45 million.
It’s important to be thorough in negotiating the plan, but some point it can move it backwards, said Commissioner Barry Jacobs.
“To quibble over things that may or may not ever happen at a time we’re trying to get started at a certain point is counterproductive,” he said.
Negotiations have been effective and the cost share plan is fair, Pelissier said.
“If we want federal dollars we want a regional plan,” she said. “I really think this is fair.”
“We did the best we could for out county,” said Commissioner Pam Hemminger.