Published: Oct 27, 2012 07:00 PM
Modified: Oct 27, 2012 04:13 PM
CHAPEL HILL - Getting voter approval of a half-cent sales tax is only the first step on a long road to bus and light-rail services.
For Triangle Transit officials, there will be multiple challenges: developing the Orange-Durham transit plan, handling sales tax and other revenues for local governments, and applying to state and federal agencies for three-quarters of the money necessary to make the light-rail portion of the $1.4 billion plan a reality.
TT officials also will need to connect the dots of local transportation systems into a regional network. While Durham County has approved its plan and sales tax increase, and Orange County is getting its pieces into place, Wake County hasn’t finalize its plan or decided how to pay for it. Wake commissioners rejected a sales tax vote earlier this year.
Orange County voters are deciding now whether to pay the extra sales tax (5 cents on most $10 purchases) to help build the proposed 17.3-mile light-rail line from UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill to Alston Avenue in Durham. Over 15 years, light-rail construction and operations would consume 75 percent of $661.1 million in local, state and federal dollars projected to be spent in Orange County.
The rest will fund smaller projects: improve existing bus services, add park-and-ride lots, build an Amtrak station in Hillsborough and launch bus-rapid transit on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Chapel Hill.
Many questions remain: What happens if the sales tax referendum fails or state or federal funding does not come through as hoped?
There is not enough local money to create a significant transportation network, leaders say. If the sales tax fails, the counties, Triangle Transit and the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro Metropolitan Planning Organization would draft a new plan focused on buses instead of light rail. If there are no state or federal funds, a new plan also would be created using available funds, including a $10 vehicle registration fee increase ($3 for Triangle Transit and $7 for Orange County). How would the transit plan affect Hillsborough and Orange County?
Regardless of whether light rail gets built, Orange County Commissioners Chairwoman Bernadette Pelissier and Craig Benedict, the county’s director of planning and inspections, said rural areas would benefit from “activity nodes,” where riders catch the bus at park-and-ride lots, and businesses grow around them to serve residents’ needs. White Cross on N.C. 54 west of Carrboro is a good example of where a park-and-ride could work because it already has several businesses, Benedict said. How would the transit plan affect Chapel Hill and Carrboro?
Carrboro Mayor Mark Chilton said the town is focused on local transportation services, although it could get a stop on Triangle Transit’s regional express bus route to Durham. By 2040, there could be a push to extend the light-rail line across campus to downtown Chapel Hill and Carrboro, then up to Carolina North and Eubanks Road, Chilton and Alderwoman Lydia Lavelle said. Chapel Hill’s 2020 Comprehensive Plan calls for directing most residential and commercial development to one of six transportation nodes. Would this plan solve Orange County transportation issues?
Short answer: No.
The plan focuses on university and hospital traffic, because that’s where the jobs and the demand are, officials said. The benefit to rural areas is that putting more people on buses and trains will relieve congested roads closer to the towns, they said.
Orange County Commissioner Earl McKee disagrees. The plan is backward, because it puts the light rail development ahead of more robust bus service, which could serve a larger portion of the county, he said. The rail line also sends the most economic benefit to Durham, because that’s where most of the stations are, he said.
“If you’re dependent on public transportation, if you would like to have more robust transportation, you need to vote against this plan,” he said.
Bonnie Hauser, president of the rural grassroots group Orange County Voice, added the plan doesn’t sufficiently address out-of-county commuters from:
• Alamance: According to 2010 Census data, roughly 6,000 Alamance County residents work in Orange County, 3,700 in Durham and about 3,600 in Wake County. The transit plan includes a Mebane-Hillsborough-Durham express bus, and Burlington residents could take the train to Hillsborough to catch buses.
However, many commuters drive into Orange County each day on the heavily congested N.C. 54 corridor west of Carrboro, which is not included in the plan.
• Chatham: The 2010 Census indicates roughly 3,700 Chatham residents work in Chapel Hill, and nearly 2,000 residents work in Durham. Local leaders said the Chatham County commissioners are no longer receptive to regional plans. Chatham Commissioner Pam Stewart, who serves on the DCHC-MPO, did not return a call seeking comment.