News and Observer: Wake asks voters to spare a half-cent for transit

Wake County voters are being asked to fund a transit plan that supporters say will improve connectivity and ease traffic across the Triangle, one of the fastest-growing areas in America.The back of the ballot asks Wake voters whether they’re willing to raise the sales tax rate by a half-cent to fund the Wake Transit Plan, a 10-year, $2.3 billion project that calls for commuter rail between Garner and Durham and stronger bus service throughout the county. “We’re really behind the eight ball with our transit needs,” said developer John Kane, who served on the 78-member advisory council that came up with the plan. “I think we came up with a plan that’s within a budget that will work, has very good coverage and goes places where ridership will be high.”

 

Here’s a closer look at the proposal and its costs.

The plan

The most expensive part of the plan is a 37-mile commuter rail that would make stops in Garner, Raleigh, on the N.C. State University campus, and in Cary, Morrisville, Research Triangle Park, Durham and at Duke University. Trains would transport riders between Raleigh and Durham in 45 minutes or less during rush hour.

The plan would also bring a new feature to local roads in the form of Bus Rapid Transit, known as BRT, which runs buses in dedicated lanes and gives them priority at traffic signals. Buses would stop at BRT stops every 15 minutes.

Twenty miles of BRT service would connect downtown Cary in the west, William Peace University in the north, WakeMed Raleigh in the east and the Tryon Road-U.S. 401 intersection in the south. BRT would mostly run on Western Boulevard, Capital Boulevard, New Bern Avenue and Wilmington Street.

Supporters tout the plan’s coverage as its biggest strength. About 22 percent of Wake County employers are within a mile of the current bus system. Under the new plan, nearly 50 percent of the county’s employers would be within a mile of a bus line that offers pickups every 15 minutes.

The plan calls for 30-minute (non-BRT) bus service at stops in Cary, Morrisville, Research Triangle Park, Raleigh-Durham International Airport and the Wake Tech Community College campus between Garner and Fuquay-Varina. Buses would stop every hour in Apex, Garner, Knightdale and Wake Forest. Rolesville, Wendell, Zebulon, Fuquay-Varina and Holly Springs would also get hourly service – but only during weekday rush hours.

The plan would boost funding for the county’s TRACS door-to-door bus service, which serves military veterans, disabled residents and people who live in unincorporated parts of Wake. And it encourages Wake’s 10 smallest towns (everyone but Raleigh and Cary) to establish their own bus services by providing a 50 percent funding match. 

Paying for it

Local tax dollars would fund about 50 percent of the plan through the increased sales tax and vehicle registration fees, while the federal government would pay for 25 percent and the rest would come from debt financing, fare revenue and other sources.

Wake residents currently pay a sales tax rate of 7.25 percent – 4.75 percent is levied by the state and 2.5 percent is levied by the county. 

The half-cent sales tax increase would generate $78.5 million in fiscal year 2018, which starts in July 2017, according to the plan’s authors. Based on growth projections, sales tax revenue available for transit is estimated to rise by 4 percent each year. 

Vehicle registration fees would increase by $10, generating $8.5 million in fiscal year 2017 and growing by 2 percent each year after. 

Raleigh, Cary and GoTriangle, a regional transportation authority and provider, would contribute a combined $15 million in fiscal year 2018, and their contribution would increase by 2.5 percent each year. Wake transit planners estimate ridership fees would pay for 20 percent of the operating expenses.

Planners also hope to secure $477.8 million in long-term financing and $40 million in short-term financing to help fund the plan. Planners would repay the debt using revenue generated by transit revenue, sales tax and auto registration fees.

The plan doesn’t specifically state who would acquire the financing and assume the debt, but county officials say it would be GoTriangle. 

“In the unlikely event of a loan default, Wake County taxpayer revenue would not be used for repayment. Instead, the debt is secured by the physical assets: buses, rail cars, equipment, etc. purchased by GoTriangle to complete the projects,” Nicole Kreiser, the county’s financial services manager, wrote in an email.

The history

Local transit advocates lobbied Wake’s Board of Commissioners for a more expansive transit plan for years with little success. Republicans who controlled the board until 2014 argued that the county couldn’t support a rail system, in particular, because its residential and commercial areas weren’t concentrated enough to draw enough riders.

After shooting down one plan, the board in summer 2014 created a planning structure to develop a new transit plan. The effort launched that December after voters gave full control of the board to Democrats who campaigned on prioritizing transit.

Commissioners Matt Calabria and Sig Hutchinson, who collected voter feedback last year at public meetings across the county, say the current plan is more palatable than previous iterations because it excludes light rail, which many saw as too costly. 

Those changes, as well as the addition of Bus Rapid Transit and the commuter rail service, are why the Regional Transportation Alliance business coalition decided to endorse the plan, said Joe Milazzo, its executive director. The transportation alliance, a regional program of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, opposed previous versions because it believed they were too expensive and inflexible. 

“This plan provides the right balance of speed, scalability and flexibility,” Milazzo said.

More than 75 organizations and businesses, including eight local chambers of commerce, have approved the plan, according to Moving Wake County Forward, a pro-transit committee co-chaired by Morrisville Mayor Mark Stohlman, a Republican.

Doubters

Despite the changes, some doubt the plan’s appeal and say it doesn’t do enough for the county’s suburbs.

Julie Tisdale, a policy analyst for the John Locke Foundation, wrote a report critical of the plan. She doesn’t think the rail service or hourly bus service will appeal to enough residents. Wake Transit says traffic can be so unpredictable during rush hour that it takes commuters anywhere from 35 to 80 minutes to get from Raleigh to Durham. Planners estimate the rail service would get commuters between the cities in 45 minutes.

“It’s only going to be slightly faster than driving, and that’s not door-to-door. That’s station to station.” Tisdale said.

Wendell Mayor Ginna Gray says the plan doesn’t do enough for her 6,300-person town to draw her support. Wendell already has peak-hour service to and from Raleigh, she said. 

“For all the good things it’s going do for a lot of communities, nothing much changes for Wendell. So it’s kind of hard to swallow,” she said.

Gray echoed Tisdale’s concern that the plan would fail to change commuting habits. Gray said her husband drives to his job in Research Triangle Park and isn’t likely to catch a bus or drive to Garner or Raleigh to hop the commuter train anytime soon.

“He’s in the habit of taking his own car, so it’s an old-dog, new-trick kind of thing,” she said. 

The Wake County Republican Party and Wake County Taxpayers’ Association oppose the plan, arguing that planners used questionable ridership and cost estimates and that the BRT service impedes traffic flow. 

“If you don’t widen the road, you’re taking lanes away from cars,” said Tony Pecoraro, vice president of the taxpayers group. Pecoraro said planners will spend $5 in operating costs for every $1 of revenue the transit system generates. 

What if it fails?

If the referendum fails, the county won’t qualify for the state and federal grants needed for the project. Without those funds and the sales tax revenue, county leaders say they have no course of action for implementing the plan. “There is no Plan B,” said Hutchinson.

An article from The News and Observer, written by Paul Specht, October 23rd 2016
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