Map by Amy Mindick-Walling
As Raleigh voters head to the polls this year, they must decide if they want to support a transportation bond that would be used to fund road improvement projects and programs throughout the city.
The $75 million bond will be listed on the Oct. 8 ballot and, if approved, will result in a 1.12-cent increase in the tax rate.
The city’s tax rate is currently 38.26 cents.
The bond money will be used to fund multiple road improvement projects and city programs, as well as set some cash aside for projects that involve a partnership with the state.
The transportation bond shouldn’t be confused with the proposed transit tax, which would be a half-cent increase to the sales tax that would fund transit improvements throughout Wake County. The transit tax would fund expanded bus service, commuter rail and possibly light rail. Wake County Commissioners haven’t approved putting that referendum on the ballot, though residents in Durham and Orange counties have already voted and approved it.
A voter-approved bond is one of two ways that the city can raise money to pay for capital projects.
“We bond for transportation projects much in the same way people take out a mortgage to buy a home,” said Transportation Planning Manager Eric Lamb.
If approved by voters, the city will sell the bonds to investors and then pay those investors back using the money from the tax increase.
The alternative is to save the money until there are sufficient funds for each project.
Lamb said that much like other municipalities, the city has decided that bonding is the best option. Bonding allows the city to get funding more quickly so projects are realized faster.
“The trade off is that it does incur debt,” he said.
The city issued transportation bonds in 1984, 1987, 1998, 2000, 2005 and 2011.
In 2011, voters approved a smaller $40 million bond package that not only funded traditional transportation projects but also greenways and street resurfacing.
This bond package doesn’t include greenways or street resurfacing, but does add funding for sidewalk improvements, traffic calming and streetscape projects.
The bond sets aside $10 million for its share of the cost for state projects on state-maintained roads.
One example of this would be the replacement of the Capital Boulevard bridge over Peace Street. While this is a state project, the city is required to kick in some of the funding.
About one-third of the projects slated for bond funding would be completely funded or would have their funding schedules completed. The rest would be only partially funded.
City planning staff members look at transportation projects in three-year windows. The first year is design and public involvement. The second year the city acquires easements and the property needed to build the project. The third year is when construction begins.
How Much is Too Much?
City planning staff knew a bond would be needed this year, but one of the biggest debates among City Councilors was how big the bond should be.
City staff presented bond packages for a $75 million, $100 million and $150 million scenarios.
“My view on the bond was that we could have done more,” said District E Councilor Bonner Gaylord.
During Council discussions, Gaylord argued for a higher bond that may have included fewer projects, but would fully fund those projects.
By only funding part of some of the projects, he said, it kicks the can down the road forcing future Councils and residents to approve more bonds.
“You’re not going to buy a partially finished car and hope you can come up with the money to build the rest of it down the road,” he said.
Gaylord approves of the current bond, but said he wished could have been more.
Complicating matters is a $810 million school bond that is also on the ballot and if approved, will raise the tax rate another 5.53 cents.
Shall the order adopted on August 6, 2013, authorizing not exceeding $75,000,000 transportation bonds of the City of Raleigh, North Carolina, for the purpose of providing funds, together with any other available funds, for variou transportation related improvements inside and outside the corporate city limits of said city, including, without limitation, street, sidewalk and streetscape improvements, bridges, bicycle lanes, curbs and drains, traffic controls, bus and train station and shelter improvements, and the acquisition of any related land, rights of way, equipment, and authorizing the levy of taxes in an amount sufficient to pay the principal of and the interest on said bonds, be approved? Yes or No.
At-Large Councilor Mary-Ann Baldwin said that it was the school bond that kept her from approving any transportation bond that would be more than $75 million.
“My goal was to keep this as close to 1 cent as possible,” she said of the property tax raise if voters approve the bond.
Baldwin said she didn’t want people to have to make a choice between the transportation bond and the school bond. If the school bond wasn’t on this year’s ballot, Baldwin said that she thinks that number would have changed dramatically and would have been closer to $100 million.
As for the argument of fully funding projects, Baldwin said it’s a good plan, but “if you can get several projects designed and know in the next bond that they’ll be constructed, you haven’t lost anything.”
By the time the Council is ready to approve the next bond, those projects are ready for construction.
Regularly Scheduled Bonds
Lamb said that staff is looking at the city’s entire project portfolio and is coming up with a 10-year action plan that would outline a regular schedule for bonds, what projects they would cover and what the tax implications would be.
In the past, Lamb said that the city’s bonding schedule hasn’t been predictable and was done at irregular intervals.
It’s possible that residents could expect to see a bond on the ballot every few years.
Baldwin said she likes that approach.
“If they know it’s coming and they know why, they are more accepting of it and they feel better informed,” she said.
Bait and Switch?
Although City Councilors and city planning staff agreed on a number of projects and programs that would receive bond funding, the funding isn’t tied to those specific projects.
Some of the debate about the bond has centered on this fact, with the most extreme accusations calling it a bait-and-switch scheme.
Legally, city staff can use the money for any transportation-related project as outlined by the published legal notice, but Lamb said that if city staff is going to prioritize one project over another, they bring that project and their rational to Councilors for an official decision.
One example, he said, is Rock Quarry Road Part A, which was originally slated for funding from a previous bond, but after staff reevaluated the circumstances of the project, including how it connected to other ongoing projects on Jones Sausage Road, they decided to hold off on part A and move on to Rock Quarry Road Part B.
Rock Quarry Road Part A is now included in this year’s bond.
“We couldn’t take transportation money and go build a public safety center,” Lamb said.
Reducing the number of lanes or width of a street in order to improve safety or add space for other users, like bicycles.
Improvements done to the physical road, such as widening or re-striping.
Upgrades installed along a street, such as landscaping, medians, benches, lighting and widening sidewalks.
Improvements made to support buses, such as shelters, benches, and sidewalk links.
Obtaining property from property owners so that improvements can be made.
Neighborhood Traffic Management Program
This is the city’s traffic calming program. Residents who feel that drivers travel too fast through their neighborhoods can petition the city to have various methods of traffic calming installed. These methods range from speed bumps to modified roundabouts.
NCDOT Project Participation
Funds for city participation in state road and bridge projects, including wider sidewalks and upgraded noise walls.