After nearly a year of no transit talk, Wake County officials held a work session Monday morning and gave County Manager Jim Hartmann the OK to put together and release a request for proposals for a consultant to create a new transit plan.
The consultant would begin work on a new plan starting in August, with a March 2015 deadline.
“We’re ready to pull the trigger on this,” Hartmann said.
The goal, Hartmann said, is to develop a transit plan that will provide competitive, convenient, equitable service at a cost that would not be overly burdensome.
Hartmann said the county has partnered with transit providers like Triangle Transit, the City of Raleigh and the Town of Cary, as well as citizen and business groups.
“That’s going to create all types of conversations,” said Commissioner Joe Bryan, adding that these goals are going to come into conflict with one another at some point during the process.
Commissioner James West asked that the consultant address the culture and values surrounding transit, calling these issues “barriers to consensus.”
Hartmann said he anticipates coming back to the Commissioners during regular meetings and special work sessions to review the plan’s process.
The last public conversation about transit was held back in November, when the county invited three panelists to give their input on the previous transit plan.
All agreed that the area did not have the bus ridership, congestion or density numbers that would warrant a jump to light rail and suggested starting by expanding the existing bus service.
The first part of the plan included expanding bus service, followed by commuter rail and then possibly light rail.
Wake County Commission Chair Paul Coble told reporters after Monday’s meeting that the delay in transit discussions was due to timing, noting that former County Manager David Cooke had expressed a desire to retire, and his replacement was being brought on board right before budget season.
Critics have said hiring a consultant is a stall tactic to get through the upcoming November election. Coble is one of four Republicans whose seat is up for grabs this November. He’ll be facing off against challenger John Burns.
“There’s no way you can have a plan ready for a fall election,” he said. “In order to have a viable plan, you have to take a lot of different ideas and a lot of different facts and put them together and the way to do that fairly is to have a consultant.”
State Bill Could Pose Problems
A bill floating in the state’s finance committee could pose problems for the funding of the transit plan, which was previously a half-cent sales tax increase.
Voters in Durham and Orange counties have already approved the tax increase to begin funding their own transit plans, which include expanded bus service. Funds for those plans are already being collected.
Wake Commissioners have not allowed the increase to be put on the ballot, despite calls from supporters to let the voters decide if transit should move forward.
House Bill 1224 would cap the local sales tax at 2.5 cents, and would prohibit counties from raising sales tax to fund both transportation and education.
On Aug. 4, Commissioners will vote to allow a referendum increasing sales tax by a quarter-cent, to increase the teacher supplement.
If House Bill 1224 passes, it would increase the tax to a half-cent, and would force the county to allow the tax to expire before adopting another one that would fund transportation measures.