Welcome to Smart Transit for Orange County

In November, Orange County voters voted for a one-half percent sales tax for transit.  Orange County is proceeding with a plan for spending our transit dollars – much will go to the light rail line between Duke Medical Center and UNC Hospitals. See details here.

We will continue to advocate for bus transit and bus rapid transit which we think will deliver convenient and reliable transit to Orange County citizens and commuters.

This website is designed to educate citizens about on-going plans for regional transit with a focus on good value transit for Orange County.  We want to represent views of a growing group of citizens from the towns and the county who love Orange County and are committed to create a flexible and convenient transit system that meets the evolving demands of our county.

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Local Leaders Clash on Transit

Anne Brenner Reporting
Additional Reporting by Aaron Keck

CHAPEL HILL- Local leaders have numerous disagreements about a proposal for a half-cent sales tax increase to pay for long-term improvements in Orange County’s public transit system—and they’re particularly at odds about the portion of the plan that would construct a light-rail line from Chapel Hill to Durham.

“If we’re going to have light rail, and if you think it’s going to be a good idea in the next 15 years, we need to start squirreling away the money today to be able to build and operate that program,” says Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt.

On Monday afternoon, WCHL hosted a two-hour forum on the tax, which is one of the most heavily discussed items on this year’s local ballot. The forum featured several guests, including Kleinschmidt, Orange County Commissioner Earl McKee, Jason Baker of Orange County Friends of Transit, and Bonnie Houser of Orange County Voice.

McKee spoke out against the plan during the forum, and he says the light rail portion raises the risk of significant cost overruns.

“Anytime you’ve got a plan this large, this expensive, and over as long a period of time as this one, there’s the possibility of cost overruns,” he says. “My concern is primarily over the last year and half, that the cost overruns and focus on the light rail system will be to the detriment of the additional bus services we need in Orange County.”

But Baker, who spoke in favor of the plan, says it includes several elements other than the light rail proposal, all of which would come first.

“The light rail comes later,” he says. “It comes as we continue to grow along what’s one of the heaviest traffic corridors certainly in town, but also that’s very important in the entire region.”

Hauser says while she’s in support of improving transit, she’s not in support of the plan on the table because of the light rail implications—and she adds that the plan would be more beneficial for Durham than it would be for Chapel Hill.

“It invests 75 percent of our transit dollars in light rail to Durham,” she says. “For that same amount of money, we could have county-wide bus service with bus-rapid transit in the high transit corridors.”

Some have argued that in the Triangle, only Durham and Wake Counties would experience the growth that would necessitate a plan like this one—but Baker says that’s not the case.

“There are a combined total of 200,000 new people that will be coming to Orange and Durham Counties,” he says. “And even if it’s a little less than that number, we have the ridership and density in certain areas to justify this plan as is.”

Baker and Kleinschmidt also both commented on the high percentage of Durham residents who are commuting to or near the Chapel Hill area every day for work.

“Forty percent of the jobs in Orange County are being filled by people driving here from somewhere else,” he says. “And largely, it’s from Durham.”

In addition to the light rail project, the plan would also fund an expansion of the county’s bus system, including the establishment of a rapid transit line along MLK Drive; it would also fund the construction of an Amtrak station in Hillsborough. The cost of the plan as a whole is estimated at $661 million.

Mayor Kleinschmidt says the plan as a whole is necessary, especially when it comes to expanding bus services.

“We don’t even have to talk about growth to talk about the need for increased investment in bus service not just for the Chapel Hill township, but for the entire county,” he says. “When you look at the 54 corridor, the numbers of commuters along that corridor today justify another way to get people to move up and down that corridor.”

Another central argument for the plan is the potential for it to help the environment by taking cars off the roadways. But, McKee says that won’t necessarily be the case.

“I understand the argument that light rail will take cars off the roads,” he says. “But I think there’s a DOT study that show’s it won’t appreciably decrease congestion nor lessen the environmental effect of exhaust from cars.”

In any event, Hauser says regardless of what happens on Election Day, the discussion about local transit needs to be ongoing for years to come.

“I feel like the dialogue has just begun, and I think it’s wonderful that it’s come to the public,” she says. “And I hope, no matter which way the referendum goes, that the dialogue continues.”

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A Primer on the Transit Plan

Orange County Voice just released this summary in their 10/19/12 newsletter

Primer on Transit Plan, Taxes and Fees

Voters will decide a 1/2 cent tax increase for transit.  Please take a few minutes to learn about this tax and the underlying plan before you vote.

The county commissioners have placed a 1/2 cent sales tax increase for light rail (LRT)  and other transit services on the ballot.  If voters approve the increase, sales taxes will increase from 7 to 7 1/2%,  and officials will increase annual vehicle registration fees from $33 to $43.

A vote “for” the tax authorizes the BoCC to levy the tax and the fees to fund Triangle Transit Authority’s (TTA) Transit Plan.    A vote against the tax indicates that you oppose the tax and/or the plan.  If voters oppose the tax, it can be brought forward on a later ballot.

Transit Plan Overview
Orange County’s transit plan seeks $660 million from local, state and federal  sources over the 22 years. Seventy percent of the money goes to light rail transit (LRT). The rest goes toward park and ride lots, bus service, and an Amtrak station in Hillsborough.  Planned services would be in addition to bus services from Chapel HIll Transit (CHT), Orange Public Transit (OPT) and Triangle Transit Authority (TTA).  Funds from the tax can be applied to new services only.

The proposed light rail service (LRT) goes to Durham.   Four miles of rail in Orange County complete a 17 mile line that extends from  UNC hospital, along East NC 54, to downtown Durham, Duke Medical Center and Alston Ave.  The estimated cost for the entire rail line is $1.4 billion with ¾ of the funds sought from federal and state grants.

There are no plans for direct service from Orange County to RTP, RDU or Raleigh.  Wake County, the primary population center, is not participating in TTA’s plan, and Wake County leaders have not discussed the plan or tax.

Durham voters approved the tax and plan last year.  The plan provides LRT through Durham’s targeted economic development areas (not ours).  Orange County’s participation is required for Durham to move their plans forward.

Plan Components
The plan has four major components:

  • Four miles of light rail service (LRT) from UNC hospital along NC 54 East to Duke Hospital and on to Alston Ave in Durham.   The estimated cost is $477 millon, with service beginning in 2026.
  • Two and one-half miles of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) along MLK Blvd from I-40 to Estes Road for a cost of $24.5 million.  Operating expenses are not included in the plan.  To learn more about BRT,  click here.
  • A 34,000 hour increase in bus service (3-4% increase per year over five years) including service on Sunday and when UNC is on recess.  The estimate for buses, park and rides and operations is $131 million for 22 years of service.
  • An Amtrak Train Station in Hillsborough ($8.9 million) which Hillsborough has been planning for years.

Plan Management and Funding
The proposed transit plan for Orange County is estimated to cost $660 million through 2035.  Over 70% of the spending  ($477  million) is for light rail  from UNC Hospital to the Durham county line on NC 54.   Light rail operations begin in 2026.  The remaining funds will be used for park and rides, bus service, and Hillsborough’s Amtrak Station.

Local revenues (sales tax, vehicle fee, other)  would fund about 1/4 of the plan. Half of the funding relies on federal grants; 1/4 on state grants.  The plan adds $24 million of local debt

Changes to the plan scope, funding or cost, including loss of grant funding, are governed by an “implementation agreement”.   Orange County, TTA and the Durham/Chapel Hill Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) must unanimously approve material changes to the plan or its funding.   Durham monies are managed separately from Orange County’s – but it is unclear how TTA will manage conflicting priorities if/as they arise.

The sales tax must be used for new services.  Based on state law, the sales tax cannot be used to “supplant”, i.e. replace, funds currently provided by CHT or UNC.  The vehicle fees are unrestricted.

Contrary to the plan,  $7 of the $10 vehicle fee has been reallocated to CHT for existing services (roughly $780,000 per year or $22 million total).  Planners have not disclosed what services would be cut to accomodate this change.

Authorizing Legislation
In 2009, the state legislature authorized a 1/2 cent sales tax increase for transit by voter referendum. They also authorized counties and TTA to add $15 to annual vehicle registration fees (without voter approval). TTA has already levied $5 of the $15 fee.

The full plan, including maps, click here Triangle Transit Authority’s Transit Plan
Financial information, click here Financial Information
Voting and registration information, click here

For more information, contact Commissioner Earl McKee or OCV’s Bonnie Hauser
For voter information, including sample ballots, see Orange County Board of Elections

Election Day is November 6th

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