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.”