Published: Jun 09, 2012 07:00 PM
Modified: Jun 09, 2012 12:21 PM
HILLSBOROUGH - Orange County voters will get to decide whether to fund a bus and light rail transit plan with a sales tax increase in November.
The Orange County Board of Commissioners voted 5-2 Tuesday night to put a half-cent sales tax referendum on the ballot in November.
Before voting on the referendum, commissioners also approved the transit plan by a 5-2 vote.
If the referendum passes, the tax increase would go toward funding a transit plan that would add bus service throughout the county and eventually connect Chapel Hill to Durham via light rail.
About a dozen residents commented on the plan before the vote. The majority were supportive, including Chapel Hill Town Council members Penny Rich and Ed Harrison.
“It’s time that we bring it to the citizens and let them vote on this,” said Rich, who is set to become a county commissioner after the November election, after winning her primary bid for a District 1 seat last month.
The plan is an investment for future generations, said Dan Jewel, a landscape architect in Durham and a member of the Durham-Orange Friends of Transit.
“A robust expanded and dependable transit system is very important to our two counties,” he said. “It’s an investment in our future.”
Residents who spoke against the plan largely cited its expense and argued that it would provide little benefit to rural residents.
The plan would be partially funded by an increase in vehicle registration fees for all county residents, which isn’t fair for those who wouldn’t use the transit system, said Chris Weaver, who is running as a Republican candidate for a District 2 seat on the Board of County Commissioners in November. County voters, especially those in largely rural District 2, shouldn’t be asked to subsidize a light rail system for students and commuters, he said.
“Why should District 2 be asked to pay half the fees to get these seasonal voters to a study group and why should District 2 pay for what looks to be a UNC [and] Duke employee shuttle?” he said.
Commissioners Earl McKee and Steve Yuhasz opposed both the referendum and the plan, saying the measures wouldn’t help rural residents in northern Orange. A tax would require those residents to pay for a transit system that wouldn’t directly benefit them, the pair said.
“We’re just putting all of our transit eggs in this basket that really is so heavily weighted to a light rail plan that provides just scraps of the real kinds of transit that we’re most likely to need over the foreseeable future,” Yuhasz said. “In the end we’re going to end up with a plan that is too expensive and provides too little overall service and I don’t know how we can improve on that at all.”
Commissioners also agreed to draft an implementation plan with Durham County and Triangle Transit and asked county staff to bring back an agreement in August.
“I think we’ve protected the county and our citizens and we’re planning for the [population] growth,” said Commissioner Pam Hemminger.
The transit plan helps everyone in the county, both in the rural and urban areas, said Commissioner Barry Jacobs.
"We’re trying to be fair to everyone to the best of our ability, and I think this plan moves forward a lot of the values of Orange County…in a better way than we’ve been able to do so far," he said.
Commissioners Chairwoman Bernadette Pelissier agreed.
"I am very glad we have passed this,” she said. “We owe it to the voters…to let them decide.”