CHAPEL HILL - On April 1, Orange County shoppers will see their sales tax rise another half-cent to 7.75 percent – about 78 cents for every $10 purchase.
The tax, which voters approved in November, is part of a plan to pay for transportation improvements. It will not apply to gas, food, housing or medical costs.
The Orange County Board of Commissioners voted 5-1 Tuesday to start collecting the transit tax. In a 4-2 vote, the board also added $7 to the local vehicle registration fee and $3 to the $5 regional fee. The cost of registering a vehicle in Orange County will increase to $43 this summer.
By 2035, the sales tax, vehicle registration fees and Triangle Transit’s car rental tax could raise about $216.1 million, roughly 33 percent of Orange County’s $661.1 million bus and rail plan. Federal and state governments are expected to pay 75 percent to 90 percent of the construction and equipment costs.
Triangle Transit attorney Wib Gulley said they are working with Chapel Hill to expand Chapel Hill Transit’s bus services by January 2014. Chapel Hill Transit will hold community meetings to map out the priorities, interim director Brian Litchfield said.
Gulley said another top priority is the bus line connecting Mebane, Hillsborough and Durham.
But some residents, including Commissioner Earl McKee, want the county to delay planning for a light-rail system they think will have few riders. Gulley and McKee disagreed about whether the rail system, which stops less than a mile from N.C. Central University, goes far enough.Rural bus routes
The plan’s opponents suggested using the light-rail money for rural bus routes where none exist now.
Orange County Voice President Bonnie Hauser pointed to bigger increases that Durham and Wake are planning as an example for Orange County.
In the first five years, the Chapel Hill and Orange Public transit systems could add 17 percent more bus hours – from 203,000 to 237,650 hours. Durham’s plan would increase bus service hours by 28 percent – from 177,000 to 227,000 hours – and Wake County’s plan, if approved, would nearly double bus service hours to 670,000.
Hauser and others said the federal grant money for light rail is not guaranteed and, even if approved, may not be available for years. Millions in planned spending could be used instead to create a true public system in Chapel Hill rather than a UNC hub, they said.
“Of course, if we did that, we’d realize that our transportation density is not concentrated along the 54 corridor as (Triangle Transit) has suggested,” Hauser said.
The county has to pay up front, because the federal government only reimburses the county for its share after making sure “the money is spent wisely,” Gulley said.
Triangle Transit officials applied for the Federal Transportation Administration’s New Starts grant program in September. They may hear something by the end of the year, but a definitive answer isn’t likely until at least summer and the money could be a few years out, he said.
The plan’s critics said the county should use that time to carefully reconsider its options. Future population and commercial density may make light rail viable later, they said.Missed corridors
Chapel Hill resident Del Snow, chairwoman of the town’s Planning Board, said the panel has questioned the plan’s targeted areas. It emphasizes a southern light-rail line along N.C. 54 and a north-south bus-rapid transit route the length of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. However, it does little for other growth corridors identified in the town’s 2020 plan, including U.S. 15-501, she said.
A delay would give the town’s transportation work group time to craft a better plan that provides commuters with flexible and frequent bus service, bike lanes and sidewalks, she said.
“The board believes it is the comprehensive plan that should guide growth and development, and that a transit plan should be used to support that vision,” she said.
Others said serving the main roads to UNC and UNC Hospitals would take more cars off the road and meet the needs of the county’s biggest employers. That will create secondary benefits for other residents by reducing congestion on all roads, they said. Local and regional planners also expect dense commercial and residential growth around the light-rail stations.
Commissioner Mark Dorosin said the community has had a “very vibrant discussion” about the issue, and all the comments will be invaluable moving forward.
“I am not as pessimistic as some folks about the opportunity to address some of the needs that we’ve heard from the rural parts of the county about bus service,” he said.