Transit-friendly group opposes Orange transit tax

A politically influential, grassroots organization in Orange County that supports mass transit is launching a last-minute effort to convince voters to reject a half-cent sales tax referendum on the ballot Nov. 6 to fund a Triangle Transit plan that features a light-rail corridor.

“The group wants voters to recognize that if the tax increase goes forward, it authorizes a plan that over-emphasizes light rail transit (LRT) at the expense of a frequent, reliable transit system that truly serves the towns and the county,” a news release from Orange County Voice stated.

The transit plan, featuring rapid transit buses, light rail and commuter rail, originated as a three-county initiative. Durham County voters approved a half-cent tax last year. The Orange County Board of Commissioners voted in early June to put the issue before voters. But the Wake County Board of Commissioners has not moved the tax issue to the ballot.

Orange County Voice believes the transit plan needs to be redrawn with more bus routes in Orange County.

As I reported previously for Carolina Journal, the transit plan divided the Orange County Board of Commissioners. The high-cost light rail benefits residents in the urban south of the county, while residents of the rural west and north sections of the county get a modicum of new bus service.

Some Orange commissioners opposed the transit plan because it wasn’t even completed at the time of the vote to put it on the ballot. Orange County Voice said that rush job is part of the reason they don’t believe voters have had enough time to review the plan. It was completed shortly before early voting started. The Orange County Voice release can be seen below.

Press Release: Local Leaders Unite for Smart Transit and “NO” to the Tax
A diverse group of leaders from the towns and the county have joined together to oppose the transit tax referendum. The group is pro-transit – and is asking voters to vote “NO” (AGAINST) the transit tax so that a better plan can be developed. The group wants voters to recognize that if the tax increase goes forward, it authorizes a plan that over-emphasizes light rail transit (LRT) at the expense of a frequent, reliable transit system that truly serves the towns and the county.

If the voters oppose the tax, planners will be forced to come up with a plan that better fits the needs of the county. If the tax fails in November, it can be brought back on a later ballot.

The group is especially concerned that voters are uninformed about the plan that’s tied to the tax on the ballot. There has been little fact-based reporting from the press, partly because the details of the complex plan weren’t finalized until early October – just a week or two before the polls opened for early voting. Pro-transit advocacy has lacked specifics. Many voters don’t know that there even is a plan, and believe they are voting for or against transit in principle.

The major issues raised by the group’s advocacy are:
Fixed LRT doesn’t fit local demographics and commuter patterns which are changing. UNC’s campuses and healthcare facilities are decentralizing, and increasingly, commuters are coming from Chatham and Mebane. Growth projections ignore the growing senior population and changes due to cyber commuting served by the rail system.
Transit priorities for bus service and the Amtrak station in Hillsborough are shortchanged by the huge investment in LRT. The plan devotes nearly 75% of the county’s transit dollars to a four mile light rail segment from UNC Hospital along east NC 54. The segment completes a 17mile line to Duke Medical Center and on to Alston Ave, and is estimated to cost taxpayers $1.4 billion.
The plan provides no direct service to RDU, RTP or Raleigh. Wake County has not discussed or agreed to the plan at all.
The plan overlooks emerging technologies such as Bus Rapid Transit – which qualifies for the same grant funds as LRT, and can provide integrated transit service throughout the county at a fraction of the cost.
There are other issues – but in general the group is advocating for Triangle Transit Authority and associated government agencies to go back to the drawing board to create a flexible and robust system that can adapt to the changing demographics and economic development aspirations of the towns and the county. “First and foremost, convenient, reliable and widespread bus service is essential to building ridership and encouraging people to leave their cars at home.” said Bonnie Hauser, who would like to see the county’s transit investment align to population centers and target economic development areas in the towns and the county. The group is committed to work with leaders to develop plans.

The group is using their website SmartTransitforOrange.wordpress.com and Facebook page “Smart Transit for Orange County” to educate the public on the plan and the tax. “We find once people become informed about the plan and the intention to use most of the funds for Durham’s light rail project their support falters. When they see that the plan doesn’t support robust local bus, pedestrian, bike and other alternative transit improvements in line with their tax contribution, they realize that a “no” vote now buys us the time to make a better transit future for Orange County,” says Will Raymond, Chapel Hill resident and long time advocate for community interests.

The diversity and reach of the group is impressive — ranging from former town councilwoman Julie McClintock to GOP leader Bob Randall along with Chapel Hill business owner Mark Zimmerman, Efland businessman Greg Andrews and Maple View’s Bob Nutter; well-known town advocates Will Raymond and Marty Mandel are joined by emerging rural voices of Bonnie Hauser and Tony Blake. Other names include Southern Triangle’s Jeanne Brown and Hillsborough resident Mary Carter.

“Good transit is non-partisan, and serves rural and urban communities without question. Citizens will embrace transit that’s reliable and convenient – and that provides frequent service in high-use corridors. It’s hard to understand why Orange County voters are being asked to fund a plan that’s clearly designed to benefit Durham and the universities,” said Mary Carter, who is running for Orange County Commissioner.

“I’m pleased to see advocacy form in support of good transit and a better plan. Unfortunately, the plan that’s been proposed is a poor fit for Orange County. It doesn’t serve our primary and emerging commuter populations. Nor does it support the growing senior population in the town and the county,” said Commissioner Earl McKee, who has been a supporter of transit without Light Rail. Once built, light rail, cannot be shifted to accommodate changing commuter and user patterns.”

Even the Chapel Hill Planning Board has raised serious questions about the projections and the direction of transit planning. Chair Del Snow has personally joined the advocacy, explaining that she and the Planning Board feels strongly that ” a flexible, more frequent and extensive bus service along with safe bike lanes and sidewalks might meet the needs of more commuters (both workers and students) than the light rail and could be less costly per rider.” She went on to emphasize that “With the current plan we’re missing an unprecedented opportunity to create a vibrant, transit community — something we’ve wanted for years.”
Contacts:
Tony Blake (tonyblake@nc.rr.com)
Mary Carter (mary.carter_nc@yahoo.com)
Bonnie Hauser (bonnie@OrangeCountyVoice.org)
Will Raymond (transit@willraymond.org)
Del Snow (djdsnow@msn.com)

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