Commission Votes Against Debate on Transit Sales Tax

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In a 4-to-3 vote along party lines, members of the Wake County Commission Monday turned down a proposal to consider a transit plan and a half-cent sales tax referendum for this November’s ballot.

Commissioner Erv Portman presented the motion, at the very end of a meeting during which more than 20 people spoke in favor of putting the referendum on this November’s ballot.

Although Monday’s meeting agenda included no mention of the sales tax for an expanded transit plan in the Triangle, the topic dominated the public comment period.

“Your lack of action indicates a profound distrust of citizens to make decisions,” said Betty Ellerbee, a member of the League of Women Voters in Wake County. “You need to act today to make Democracy work. Vote to place the transit tax referendum on the November ballot.”

Speakers included Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane, joined by Mayor Frank Eagle of Rolesville and Mayor Ronnie Williams of Garner. McFarlane asked the group to compile a list of questions for Triangle Transit to “just have the discussion so the other cities and town share some insight on this.”

Members of the Capital Area Friends of Transit seemed to be the bulk of the attendants. CAFT e-mailed members in advance asking for support at the podium.

The $2.8 billion draft transit plan created by Wake County and Triangle Transit staff would expand bus service throughout the Triangle and create commuter rail lines connecting parts of Wake and Durham counties. Although light rail is addressed in an expanded version of the plan, that segment is not part of the initial push and will only materialize if federal and state funding is available later.

Review the Transit Plan

Durham County voters agreed in November to support the tax, and voters in Orange County will decide this November.

Related Story: Politics Loom Large Over Transit Tax Push

Wake County Commissioners had a looming deadline to decide whether to put the item on the ballot, but so far commissioners have not had discussion about whether to do so. In his motion, Portman said he was “surprised and somewhat shocked when I asked this to be added to our work session last week that the board chose not to do it.”

Commission Chair Paul Coble and the other opponents did not comment during the meeting on the motion, instead quickly voting and calling for adjournment. When asked afterward, Coble said moving forward on a “half-baked plan” without all the information would be irresponsible.

“This plan has not even gotten feedback from the railroads in this area,” he said. “The commission has a responsibility to get all the facts.”

Coble said while residents may support the idea of transit, they might not understand the full ramifications or cost associated with implementing it. Coble said he has requested more information on specific points from the Triangle Transit Authority and that railroad officials indicate they will have information in 2013.

“It would be premature for us to rush it,” he said.

During public comment, Michael Senara of the John Locke Foundation cited low ridership numbers in other cities including Denver, Baltimore and Atlanta.

“Those cities are spending millions if not billions on transit that does not carry any passengers,” he said, arguing those cities face higher-than-expected construction and operating costs.

“The facts are not on the side of rail transit in this community,” he said, offering 75 pages of documentation from two experts hired by John Locke to examine the transit plan. The plan does not include costs for extra transit vehicles or requirements to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, he said.

Wake County Manager David Cooke said he stands by the figures and estimates presented in the transit plan, but that confidence in the figures does not preclude the county’s interest in a debate about transit.

Transit supporter Brian Anderson said he dislikes many parts of the transit plan, but he’d prefer to see it put to the voters.

“That should not prevent us from allowing this to move forward and allowing it to be tweaked, as all plans are,” he said. “Claiming there is no time to study this plan is an argument I do not accept. Let us decide. Your shelving of the plan will not do anyone any good.”

In other business, Commissioners approved the 2012-13 budget. The $938.5 million budget does not include any proposed increase to the property tax rate at 53.4 cents. This budget is $10.6 million less than the current year’s budget, and eliminates 86 full-time positions.

Read more about the budget.