Transit tax to appear on Nov. ballot
By Rose Laudicina
HILLSBOROUGH – In a move that will let voters decide the future of transit in Orange County, the Orange County Board of Commissioners voted 5-2 to approve putting a transit-tax referendum on the November ballot.
“I’m very glad we have passed it,” board Chair Bernadette Pelissier said. “We owe it to the public to let them vote on it.”
By putting the half-percent sales-tax referendum for public transportation on the ballot, the commissioners are leaving it up to voters to decide if the county will have some of the funds needed to proceed with the Orange County Transit Plan, which was also approved 5-2 at the Tuesday night meeting.
In both instances commissioners Earl McKee and Steve Yuhasz cast the two dissenting votes.
“We are putting all of our transit eggs in this basket that is really so heavily weighted to a light-rail plan that provides just scraps of the real kind of transit that we are most likely to need in the foreseeable future,” Yuhasz said.
The Orange County Transit Plan includes expanded bus hours and service provided by Chapel Hill Transit, TTA and Orange County; route enhancements along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard; an Amtrak station in Hillsborough; and light rail that would connect UNC Hospitals to Alston Avenue in Durham.
“We have now approved a transit plan, but there are no monies in the general fund to do this,” Commissioner Pam Hemminger said. “In order to have this plan we have to pass this referendum.”
Triangle Transit Authority estimates that if the half-percent sales tax is passed in Orange County it will generate approximately $5 million in 2013 if active for the full year.
In November 2011, voters in Durham passed a similar half-percent sales tax, which will allow Durham to expand their public transit and help fund their portion of the light-rail system.
The issue of transit has become a contentious one for the county commissioners over the past few months, as some residents say the plan disproportionately benefits the municipalities, most notably Chapel Hill, and gives very little to the rural community.
“This is a great design for one particular portion of the county at significant expenditure,” Chris Weaver, a candidate for commissioner in District 2, told the board. “District 2 pays half the fees, but receives token increase in bus services. Why should the rural area pay half?”
Commissioner Barry Jacobs addressed the question of service disparity.
“I want to address this whole issue of who get’s what,” Jacobs said. “I won’t say I’m really tired of it; I will say it is a constant refrain.”
“Everyone gets served by Orange County government. You are all getting treated to the best of our ability, by the board of county commissioners and our staff, to be equitable and progressive.”
Members of the Chapel Hill Town Council – including Jim Ward, Ed Harrison, Penny Rich and Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt – were present at the meeting to show their support for both the transit plan and putting the tax on the November ballot.
In approving the tax, the commissioners added into the motion that the tax not be levied until an implementation agreement with Triangle Transit has been finalized.
Staff will work on the implementation agreement over the summer and bring it back in August for final approval.