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County rejects half-cent transit tax

By Joshua Lucas
Staff Writer

HILLSBOROUGH — The Orange County Board of Commissioners unanimously rejected a half-cent sales tax increase to pay for regional transit improvements Tuesday night, despite offering support for the idea of a comprehensive regional transportation system.

The vote, taken after a presentation by planners from Triangle Transit and the county’s own transportation officials, means county voters won’t vote on the sales-tax increase at the polls in November.

Commissioners have yet to vote on the plan itself, which proposes spending hundreds of millions of dollars on regional rail and bus service. But a key financing provision, the half-cent increase in the county’s sales tax, proved too much for the commissioners to swallow in tight economic times.

“I have to be a little more realistic with what the economy’s doing,” Commissioner Pam Hemminger said. “I’m not ready to move forward this fall given the circumstances going on in our community.”

The plan, which aims to link Orange, Durham and Wake counties in an extensive network of commuter rail, buses and point-to-point services, depends in large part on funding from state and federal government that hasn’t been procured yet.

“It presumes that money would be coming from other sources,” board Chair Bernadette Pelissier said.

It was that funding model that left commissioners worried. But Triangle Transit planners stressed the plan took into account worst-case projections and allowed for plenty of elbow room for unexpected costs and changes.

“We think these are ways to deliver conservatism in multiple directions,” TT transportation planner Patrick McDonough said. The debt plan, for instance, presumes at worst case a significant reserve of at least $3 million, he said.

But the combination of heavy reliance on state and federal funding and increased sales taxes proved too much for commissioners.

“This is a little overwhelming,” said board Vice Chair Steve Yuhasz. “Is there a Plan B?”

It’s unclear how the plan could move forward without the sales-tax increase, since the plan calls for much of the county’s contribution to the plan – $180 million over the life of the plan – to come from the sales-tax increase. The plan calls for at least $330 million in additional capital costs for the county over the decades-long life of the plan.

In 2009 the General Assembly approved letting the three Triangle counties vote on increasing the sales tax for transit improvements. Over the past eight months, regional governments and leaders have worked to develop the plan, which would require approval from all three counties’ governments.

But Wake County has declined to put a sales-tax increase on the ballot in the fall, prompting Commissioner Earl McKee to ponder whether the plan was really all it set out to be.

“A regional plan is not a regional plan unless the largest player is in it,” he said.

But commissioners said they wanted to find a way to move forward with the plan. Commissioner Alice Gordon, who has worked with the planners, stressed that the plan could survive a delayed vote on the sales tax.

“It’s important to move this along,” she said.

Commissioners will discuss the rest of the plan at their June 21 meeting.

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