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Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Paul Coble on the need to consider transit: "Nah."

Posted by on Wed, Jun 6, 2012 at 1:14 PM

Orange County will be voting on the 1/2-cent sales tax for transit in November. That decision was made by the Orange County Board of Commissioners last night.

Durham County, of course, has already passed the 1/2-cent tax in a referendum.

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And Wake? On Monday, at the Board of Commissioners meeting, Democrat Erv Portman urged that the subject of the tax and transit's future be put on their agenda for next week's work session. Specifically, Portman asked that County Manager David Cooke give a presentation on the updated Wake transit plan, something Portman said could be done in 30 minutes or so.

A presentation by Cooke would start a process that could result in Wake County also voting in November — at the same time as Orange County — on the 1/2-cent tax issue. Delaying Cooke's report any longer, Portman said, probably means killing the transit-tax question for 2012 without the BOC even discussing it.

To which Chairman Paul Coble, speaking for the Republican majority, said dismissively: "Nah."

He didn't say no. The word Coble used was — nah.

"We are not driven by the desires of special interest groups to put something on the ballot," Coble added a bit later.

***

Before this exchange occurred — it came at the very end of Monday's meeting — I spoke with County Manager David Cooke about the status of the Wake transit plan. Cooke brought a finished proposal to the BOC on November 14. That's going on seven months ago. The BOC heard it and set it aside.

Since then, Cooke and David King, general manager of Triangle Transit, have visited every municipal government in the county presenting the plan and getting their feedback. The feedback has been positive.

The munis haven't raised a lot of issues with the plan, Cooke said, probably because it represents "a compilation" of what they asked for in the first place — through their representatives at CAMPO.

"It's not my plan," Cooke said, when I asked him whether he regards it as his, or his and King's. "It is meant to be a bottom-up plan based on what people see as the needs of the future."

***

That certainly describes the bus portion of the plan, which is all the 1/2-cent tax is going to pay for — at least for several years.

The rail portion, as Cooke said, contains the routes and service frequencies that Triangle Transit has concluded from its federally funded "alternative analysis" are the most feasible for the region should federal and state funding be available to build them.

A commuter-rail line from Garner to Durham could be operational within a decade, with stops about three miles apart and focused on bringing folks to work in downtown Raleigh, downtown Cary, RTP and downtown Durham.

A light-rail system within Wake County, with stops a mile apart or less — and much more frequent service than the commuter-rail line — is more than a decade away, probably a lot more.

(If Orange County passes the 1/2-cent tax, light-rail service between Chapel Hill and Durham will be running years before anything gets on the ground in Cary-Raleigh.)

But to be clear, the decision about whether or not to approve a 1/2-cent transit tax in Wake County isn't about whether Wake will build rail lines. It will build them if it has a 1/2-cent tax ... and if federal and state money is available ... and if the BOC decides that it wants them.

In the first place, though, the 1/2-cent tax is about buses, and whether Wake County will have the money to support the improved system of bus transportation that the local officials in every municipality are saying they need.

This is the decision that Coble and the Republican majority on the BOC are not only stopping the public from making, but are refusing even to talk about in time to keep the possibility of a referendum alive this year.

This, as Portman says, is after the BOC made a decision about the transit tax part of its work plan for 2010, but didn't discuss it ... and for 2011, but didn't discuss it ... and it's part of the work plan for 2012, and they're not discussing it.

***

Is Cooke ready to make a presentation? I asked. (Remember, this was before the Portman-Coble exchange.)

"We're still working on some final numbers," Cooke said. "But the plan's not going to be modified greatly, based on the feedback from the municipalities, so we could essentially do that [present it] at any time."

Interestingly, if you go to the Wake County website, you'll find a concise summary of the report from November with a link to the full (58 MB) version.

It outlines next steps: 1) Visits with the munis; 2) BOC considers their feedback in the spring; 3) BOC decides whether to call for a November referendum.

Where I come from, spring means March to May, and June is summer. But even if you think June is late spring, the BOC — led by Coble and Tony Gurley, who's in a runoff in July for the GOP nomination for lieutenant governor (Motto: Why do we need any taxes?) — is refusing to do its job.

Here's the plan's outline for spending:

Wake County’s share of the five-year bus plan would be $138.3 million of the total $344 million cost for both capital and operating. Bus services currently receive some state and federal funding, which would cover the remainder.

Commuter rail would cost $650 million. Wake County’s share would be $330 million, and Durham would pay $320 million. Commuter rail is projected to be in place in 2019 or 2020.

Light rail is estimated to cost $1.1 billion (2011 dollars), to construct the rail line and pay for stations and park-and-ride lots. Operating costs would be $14 million per year. This portion of the Transit Plan will not be implemented without state and federal funding.

With the 1/2-cent sales tax added to existing funding streams from federal and state sources, Wake County could afford its bus plan and the commuter-rail element of the rail plan, Cooke told me. Light-rail is what's costly, and it can't be done without new funding from federal and sources to cover 75 percent of projected costs.

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Coble and the Republicans are running the clock run out to avoid even discussing whether to put the 1/2-cent transit tax on the November ballot in Wake County.

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