Published: Sep 22, 2012 12:00 AM
Modified: Sep 21, 2012 01:31 PM
CHAPEL HILL - Weeks before a half-cent sales tax vote, Chapel Hill officials say they can’t support a plan for building a regional system of buses and light rail without more freedom to spend the money.
The draft Interlocal Implementation Agreement sets guidelines for carrying out the Orange County Bus and Rail Investment Plan over the next 23 years. The Orange County commissioners approved the plan in June, designating how to spend the money and share the costs, project timetables and what roles area partners and transit agencies play.
Chapel Hill Town Council member Jim Ward told the commissioners Tuesday night that the town’s transit committee cannot support the agreement as written because it doesn’t account for future budget uncertainties.
The agreement sets a minimum for existing services based on 2010 service hours. If the cost of operating Chapel Hill Transit rises, which happens annually, or UNC decides to cut a route that it now fully funds, the other transit partners – Chapel Hill and Carrboro – would have to pay the difference.
If county voters approve a half-cent sales tax in November, the draft agreement says that money could only be used to add new bus services and a future light-rail connection between Chapel Hill, Duke University and Durham.
“The current language does not allow for any funds to be used for relief if state and federal funds should be significantly reduced,” Ward said.
“It forces service cuts on established routes while providing funding for the introduction of new services, a contradiction the public would find hard to understand,” he continued. “The suggested restrictions do not recognize that unforeseen things like a spike in fuel costs could affect our ability” to continue those services.
County Commissioners Chairwoman Bernadette Pelissier recommended Chapel Hill Transit eliminate some of the concern by negotiating an agreement with UNC to provide for its continued funding. The free-fare bus system is funded through a partnership among UNC, Chapel Hill and Carrboro.
“The concern I have is that UNC is making no contribution whatsoever to the transit plan but will benefit greatly by it,” Pelissier said. “UNC currently contributes to Chapel Hill Transit – they contribute about 60 percent of the local monies – and if UNC pulls 30 percent of that away, it’s a serious problem.”
Commissioner Alice Gordon said the commissioners also have a lot of work to do before approving the implementation agreement. The board will consider it again Oct. 2. All three partners
The commissioners voted 5-1 Tuesday to give the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro Metropolitan Organization a decision-making role in the planned transit working group, but they also asked for more explicit language that all three partners – Orange County, Triangle Transit Authority and the MPO – would have to agree on any decisions.
Pelissier said she thinks it is “crucial” for the MPO to have a full role, which could help with securing more federal funding. To limit its role also would be a “slap in the face” to MPO members, she said.
“If you look at the membership, Carrboro and Hillsborough don’t have any representation. The MPO is where they do have voice and can make comments about modifications to the plan, and I don’t want any municipality in this county to feel like they don’t have (a say) in the plan,” she said.
However, Commissioner Earl McKee said he thinks the MPO should be an advisory partner. Orange County representatives will look out for all county residents’ needs, he said.
Each partner will appoint members to the Staff Working Group, which will review transit projects and developments. Gordon advised requiring the group to examine its experiences in four years and come up with state and federal benchmarks for measuring future achievements.
After eight years, the group is expected to review where federal funding stands for light rail projects, and if no progress is being made, develop an alternative plan.