TTA: Bond, sales tax will cover state, federal transit shortfalls

tgrubb@newsobserver.comFebruary 7, 2014 

  • Projects in planning

    Some projects in the Orange County bus and rail plan are still be worked out:

    • Amtrak station: Hillsborough officials set aside $34,000 this year for site and environmental work. Triangle Transit will pay up to $150,000 for the work. Norfolk Southern and North Carolina Railroad officials are helping lay out the station, platform and any tracks near the Churton Street-U.S. 70 Bypass intersection. Transit officials could hear about state funding this spring.

    • Bus-rapid transit: Chapel Hill Transit and its partners – Carrboro and UNC – are considering their options for a north-south route – on MLK Boulevard and Columbia Street – from Interstate 40 to southern Chapel Hill.

    • Mebane-Hillsborough-Durham Express: The final route is being mapped through the Interstate 85-U.S. 70 corridor. The commissioners have said a U.S. 70 route could boost economic development and be more convenient for residents. They are talking with Alamance County about future services.

  • Road to funding

    Triangle Transit is seeking a MAP-21 program grant from the Federal Transportation Administration to help pay half the cost of a $1.3 billion light-rail line from UNC Hospitals to Alston Avenue, east of downtown Durham.

    FTA officials could give local transit folks an early answer in the next 10 days.

    Triangle Transit now is drafting an environmental impact statement – the first phase of the process – required under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969. The FTA decides what documents and information an applicant must include.

    A typical EIS addresses mobility, environmental benefits, congestion relief, economic development, corridor capacity needs and cost effectiveness per trip. It also includes information about existing local conditions and shows that the local agency has committed funding and a reliable capacity.

    If an EIS is successful, the FTA authorizes the applicant to move to the engineering phase. Once the engineering work is approved, Triangle Transit could begin construction.

    The federal program grants roughly $2 billion annually, usually at 50 percent of the project cost. As of August, there were 29 projects in the pipeline.

    Videos and other information about the regional transit plans are posted at bit.ly/b3k21k.

— Triangle Transit will use $126 million in local debt to cover less-than-expected state and federal funding for new buses and bus projects, general manager David King said.

However, a half-cent, voter-approved sales tax for transit could bring in more money than anticipated, transit officials said.

The Orange County Board of Commissioners got its first annual report Tuesday on the Orange Bus and Rail Investment Plan. The plan is part of a regional master plan for more bus service and a new 17-mile light-rail line from UNC Hospitals to east of downtown Durham.

Commissioners Alice Gordon and Earl McKee re-emphasized the importance of providing rural areas, as well as the towns, with more bus service.

“I think it’s important for our transit-dependent populations, so people can get to work and people can get to medical appointments,” Gordon said.

The first priority is delivering what the plan promised, said John Tallmadge, Triangle Transit regional services development director. A working group of county and regional officials can change the plan by unanimous vote if necessary.

“We know that we’re not going to have the grant funds to be able to do everything we thought we could do. Now, we have a better track record and we have a more optimistic forecast of how much sales tax we’re (getting),” he said.

Triangle Transit is guiding the transit plan and collecting the money to pay for it, including a half-cent sales tax and an extra $7 vehicle registration fee in Orange and Durham counties. Chapel Hill Transit gets 64 percent of Orange County’s share, with 12 percent going to Orange Public Transportation and 24 percent to Triangle Transit.

Triangle Transit also could levy a planned $3 regional vehicle registration fee by March.

Transit officials based the plan on a 10 percent state and 80 percent federal contribution toward the cost of new buses and other capital costs. So far, the state has provided 5 percent for new buses and 8 percent for capital costs, and the feds have given 30 percent and 38 percent, respectively.

Tallmadge said state and federal rules have changed, and there’s also more competition for fewer dollars. The good news is the transit sales tax brought in about a million dollars in 2013 sales taxes and could raise roughly $6.3 million next year, he said.

Previous estimates were $5 million a year in sales tax revenues.

McKee said the big increase in sales tax revenues is hard to accept.

“I’m very queasy when it comes to projecting an increase and talking about how we’re going to spend those increased revenues right after we have been told that the last assumption is out the window,” he said.

Interim County Manager Michael Talbert said the plan appears to use realistic estimates, assuming there’s not another recession.

Bus riders should see more routes and hours this year, on top of smaller improvements last fall, transit officials said.

Other projects – a Hillsborough Amtrak station, a Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard bus-rapid transit route in Chapel Hill and a Mebane-Hillsborough-Durham express bus – are still being planned, King said.

Triangle Transit could hear soon about Federal Transit Administration money for a light-rail line. A positive response would offer some reassurance that up to 50 percent of the region’s costs could be reimbursed. It also would start the clock on two years of required environmental studies.

“We’re optimistic, but until we get a letter with encouragement and permission to go forward, we will try to keep our optimism in check,” King said.

McKee noted the announcement this week of a major Research Triangle Park project that relies on regional commuter rail and a light-rail line within RTP’s boundaries. The project might give regional transit plans a competitive advantage when pursuing federal dollars, he said.

Grubb: 919-932-8746

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