Politics Loom Large Over Transit Tax Push

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It’s called the “David and David show,” and it’s coming to a city near you.

County Manager David Cooke and Triangle Transit General Manager David King are visiting all of Wake County’s 12 municipalities to present information about the draft plan. The pair visited the Apex Town Council and Raleigh City Council Tuesday.

The “David and David” Show Schedule

Feb. 15-Knightdale
Feb. 21-Wake Forest
Feb. 27-Wendell
Mar. 20-Fuquay-Varina
Mar. 21-Zebulon
April 3-Holly Springs
April 17-Rolesville
Done: Morrisville, Cary, Garner, Raleigh, Apex

At each stop, they explain the basics of a plan that will bring transit to the Triangle, largely paid for through a half-cent sales tax increase and a $10 increase in vehicle registration fees.  The plan is the culmination of years of work by Triangle Transit, transit planners in Wake, Durham and Orange counties and other groups in the region.

Wake County’s Transit Plan Page

Legislation passed in 2009 by the General Assembly allows the three counties to put to the voters a question of a half-cent sales tax increase for transit. Durham voters approved the tax last year. But as “David and David” continue their roadshow tour, they face a lot of obstacles in Wake County, from politics to the price tag.

The Cost
Wake County Commissioners recently learned that the county’s operating budget for the next fiscal year should have a $4.8 million surplus. But despite a slightly rosier financial picture than usual, many Commissioners are balking at the idea of burdening voters with an increased sales tax.

In addition, putting it on the ballot may mean putting two tax referendum increases before voters at once. Gov. Perdue is pushing for a fall ballot referendum for a temporary three-quarter-cent sales tax increase for education.

“It’s a decision that people have to make: If you’re going to take an extra half-cent sales tax from the public, is transit the best use of that money?” said Commissioner Tony Gurley. “As we get closer to making a decision, it’s going to be more upon the public’s mind and I think you’re going to find other uses for that money and people are going to become more vocal.”

What is the plan?

The current Triangle Transit plan draft proposes two options: The Core Plan, featuring expanded bus services and some commuter rail through multiple counties and the Expanded Plan, which adds in light rail in parts of Wake County.

View the full pdf plan at http://www.wakegov.com/planningmaps/transitplanprint.pdf.

The core plan is estimated to cost $2.8 billion in capital and operating costs through 2040; the expanded plan is $4.6 billion.

A recent report from the John Locke Foundation lambasted Triangle Transit’s plan. John Locke researchers say the plan is not financially feasible and is based on inaccurate numbers across the board: estimated ridership, cost estimates, Triangle population growth and federal funding.

“We are in agreement with the Plan that the near-term focus of improved transit service in Wake County must be improved bus-based service,” the executive summary states. “We laud the Plan’s recognition of that reality. However, our primary finding is that the Plan, as now proposed, is not technically or financially feasible and is unreliable as the basis for decisions regarding transit investment in Wake County.”

Read the John Locke Report

The report calls for an independent group to produce a new transit plan before moving forward, a move that would certainly push the referendum to a later date.

During his presentations, Cooke explains that all numbers are conservative, from population estimates to the money brought in by the half-cent sales tax.

Wake County population Census data and future estimates, used in the "David and David" transit presentation.

Triangle Transit Spokesman Brad Schulz said they are aware of the report, but had no comment.

“We’ve seen the report and are studying it,” he said. “We’ll likely have some comments at a later date.”

Regardless of what plan is used, some Wake County Commissioners say the idea of transit is a lot to consider when faced with so many other issues.

“There’s lots of competing interests in Wake County to keep this a great place to live and plan for the future,” said Commissioner Joe Bryan. “From a Commission standpoint, we look at things like education, public safety, Sheriff’s Department. Transit is one element of many things we look at.”

The Politics
Cost isn’t the only issue facing transit. Two of the County Commissioners, Paul Coble and Tony Gurley, are running for other offices.  Three commissioners — James West, Erv Portman and Betty Lou Ward — have terms expiring at the end of this year, which may mean running for re-election amid conversations about this tax referendum.

However, whether based on visions of re-election or not, Commissioners Ward and West both expressed enthusiasm for moving forward this year.

Ward called it “long overdue.”

“We should already have rail on the way. It’s not a money maker, well no, but it is a people mover,” Ward said. “As our population continues to grow, we need to have additional transit,” she said. “I hope that as we move along, the guys on our board will agree with me.”

Commissioner West said they need four votes to make it happen, which means there will be a lot more discussion before a decision is made. But he hopes it’s in favor of transit.

“I think it will take some further discussion and some consensus as to how much we can do now and what we will do later,” he said. “I feel that if we’re going to be competitive and stay on the cutting edge with the cost of fuel and so many other factors, that the county along with the city and municipalities must make some kind of decision.”

Coble, the Commission chair, said he is not prepared to discuss the issue, calling the plan “incomplete.”

“We have quite a ways to go before we have all the feedback we want to have,” he said.

But he also questioned whether the feedback will be complete in time. He suggested the media is to blame for pushing a referendum this fall.

“Somebody’s pushing this thing off the board,” he said. “The kind of money you’re talking about, it’s not something you hurry through in a happenstance sort of way and that’s not a way to go about having a logical and open discussion.”

Commission Vice-Chair Phil Matthews refused to commit on one side of the issue or another.

“Right now we’re still at the information gathering time,” he said. “From my standpoint, I don’t see rushing anything. We’ll never get another chance back at it.”

Commissioner Erv Portman gave a similar answer, saying “a lot of it comes down to whether we feel like we have buy-in from municipalities.”

Municipal Feedback
Under terms of the legislation, each of the counties must approve a financial plan that lists projects and the funding sources that’ll be used to build and operate them.  On their tour, Cooke and King are discussing the plan’s status, what the plan covers for the particular municipality and next steps toward completing the plan before it goes to the Wake Commissioners for action.

Those steps include an interlocal agreement to be signed by each municipality. Although not required by law to put the half-cent tax increase on the ballot, county and Triangle Transit staff agreed it is best to take this step before the referendum is voted upon by County Commissioners.

Of course, some municipality leaders like the plan and some don’t.

Rolesville Mayor Frank Eagles said he is not very happy with the proposal so far. Eagles, who calls himself a “huge railroad fan,” loves the plan overall, but said he could not vote for it as is because of one thing.

“They left out of the plan the commuter rail to Wake Forest,” he said. “Rolesville will not vote for any transit plan that leaves the commuter rail to Wake Forest out of it.”

Such a commuter rail line will help ease the clogged Capitol Boulevard corridor, he said.

Cooke said those types of criticisms are expected in this round of discussion.

“We have a draft plan that’s on the table and that’s what we’re communicating to different municipalities,” he said. “We want to get feedback and the scrutiny, so that when we finalize the plan that’s what we’d take around for endorsement.”

The reason for the lack of commuter rail to Wake Forest is that studies indicated more people would ride commuter rail from Garner to Durham. The idea is to get ridership first and then expand out, Cooke said.

The Record called all 12 mayors. Of those, seven said they approved of the plan and would likely vote in favor of it. Two said they would not vote for it. Two would not say and one could not be reached.

If the proposal were put before you tomorrow, would you vote for it?

Apex | Keith Weatherly – No
Cary | Harold Weinbrecht – Yes
Garner | Ronnie Williams – Yes
Holly Springs | Dick Sears – Yes
Knightdale | Russell Killen – Yes
Fuquay-Varina | John Byrne – Did not say
Morrisville | Jackie Holcombe – Yes
Raleigh | Nancy McFarlane – Yes
Rolesville | Frank Eagles – No
Wake Forest | Vivian Jones – Yes
Wendell | Timothy Hinnant – Did not say
Zebulon | Robert S. Matheny – Did not return Record phone calls

Knightdale Mayor Russell Killen said he would vote for the plan — despite the fact that his town will see no additional transit.

“The truth is Knightdale isn’t going to get too much direct benefit,” he said. “As a region, we certainly need improved and increased transit options. All of us drive on I-40. It’s not just transit. Part of what we need to do as a region is to recruit and retain people … to help drive our business community. Over the long term it really is a benefit for everybody.”

The Timing
Efforts to get area leaders on board might be moot if something holds up the plan. The idea is to put the referendum before voters this November. But to get it on the ballot, County Commissioners must take action no later than July, according to Wake County Board of Elections Director Cherie Poucher

Cooke said this round of municipal talks will finish in April or May. He expects it will take another two or three months to get the interlocal agreements signed.

Cook said he didn’t know for sure if they would make the deadline to get the referendum on the ballot. “It’s possible, right?” he said, laughing. “I think everybody understands the challenge and the difficulty.”

Schulz said it’s up the county staff, working with Triangle Transit and the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, to decide when the issue would come back to the Commission.

Ultimately, the future of transit is up to the voters.

As Schulz put it: “The question will be: are voters willing to spend a nickel on a $10 purchase to make an investment in transit service that will have a profound impact on families and the region? Voters will get to make that choice.  We’re not deciding for them.”

6 thoughts on “Politics Loom Large Over Transit Tax Push

  1. I like mass transit, but the growth projections for Wake County (1.7M people in 2040) are insane. If the rest of the Triangle grows at the same rate, there won’t be enough water.

  2. No surprise Weatherly said no. Apex is known as the town of Wake County that can’t see beyond whatever benefits them at the here & now. No forward-thinking from them, ever! (Anyone who has seen the monstrosity of Beaver Creek area these days knows that as a good example.)

  3. PUT IT UP FOR REFERENDUM Now. WE THE PEOPLE MAKE THE DECISIONS, NOT THESE PATHETIC LOW IQ POLITICIANS. Wake county commissioners and city council members are over-the-hill, out of touch, no vision sad people.

    This is long overdue, we do not need to wait another year. We will be voting YES for tax

  4. I don’t think our Wake County leadership has the political will to let the voters decide on this issue. Maybe I surround myself with “too many people who think like me” — but everyone I talk too thinks the transit tax is a good idea and *necessary* in order to get the transit that citizens so desperately want–albeit 10 years away. We can dot the i’s and cross the t’s later on the minor details, but Wake County will be a big FAIL if this issue isn’t up for referendum on the next ballot. I thought Wake County and NC were more progressive than the current mindset. We are wasting time talking about this, growth needs to pay for itself and this is a no brainer.


  5. A majority of states, including North Carolina, tightly constrain the exercise of direct democracy (unlike California, for instance). Nevertheless Article V of the NC Constitution requires certain taxation matters to be approved directly by voters. Such proposals are must arise from our elected officials. That’s how the system works in North Carolina and it’s unlikely to change in the near future.

    Whatever one’s frustration with the Wake County Commission may be, the unfortunate truth is that the county electorate put them in office in 2008 and 2010. (Elections to the commission are county-wide.) Be careful about assuming that the entire electorate is way out of sync with the commissioners. That does happen occasionally, but when it does the system usually corrects by handing the county commission over to the opposite political party.

    In 2010, Republicans won all four of the commission seats that were up for election. Reality: only one of the four races was close. I didn’t like it, but so it went. Commissioners have four-year terms. The other three seats will come up for election this year, but all of those seats are already held by Democrats. In other words, the county commission won’t flip until 2014 at the earliest.

    Of course, if the incumbent commissioners see that the countywide electorate supports a measure like a transit tax unambiguously, they’ll be inclined to put it on the ballot so that it doesn’t become a campaign issue for them in 2014. The challenge is to get that kind of unambiguous signal from the countywide electorate to the commissioners. Failing that, if you want certain things done in Wake County, the most direct way is to get commissioners elected who reflect your views.

  6. As a long time resident of the Washington, DC area when the Corgress in its iniimitable wisdom said that the efficient trolley cars should be replaced by buses, traffic, noise and air polution skyrocket. Traffic in the DC area is almost to gridllock even though the Metro rail system has been called one of the best in the US. The rail system. as good as it is does not serve enough areas and the suburbs have extended as much as fifty and seventy-five miles so that many more workers have to comute by car. With BRAC, the situation will only get worse. Anyone who thinks, knows that the operation and maintenace of a fuel powered vehicle is most expensive that an electrically powered unit. In addition, buses do not last as long as street cars and must be replaced more often. I firmly and in favor of light rail in municipal areas. As was said in the movie, If you build it the poeple will come and light rail systems will be used and will be cleaner, quieter and mores efficient. More roads don’t cut it!!!