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N.C. PIRG: Pay for transit 

If you're a typical American family of two adults and one child, you've received your $1,500 "economic stimulus" check from the federal government. And, since Feb. 13, when President Bush authorized that check, you've already spent it all—at the gas pump.

So says the N.C. Public Interest Research Group (N.C. PIRG) in a new report called Squandering the Stimulus. The situation's akin to Americans signing over their rebates to big oil companies or oil-producing countries, according to the group. A better use of the money—which would cost a lot less—would be to provide federal aid to public-transit projects that would reduce our dependence on cars and imported oil for the long term, N.C. PIRG attorney Shana Becker says.

Here are the facts as Becker sees them: First, the stimulus plan cost taxpayers $168 billion. Second, the average family's gasoline bill has eaten up their $1,500 already. Third, the nation's public transit system produced net gasoline savings of 3.4 billion gallons in 2006, the latest year for which data is available, which at current prices translates to $13.6 billion in household savings for gas. That's to say nothing of time saved by avoiding traffic congestion.

Very little of those savings came in North Carolina, however. Here, public transit saved just 1 million gallons of gas, since we have so little transit. (Charlotte started light-rail service in 2007.)

Becker notes that transit ridership is surging nationwide as gasoline prices jump. Nonetheless, there's little federal money for new rail and bus lines.

N.C. PIRG's solution: Congress should enact the "Saving Energy Through Transportation Act," which would authorize an additional $1.7 billion for public transit expansion. Raleigh and Durham would each receive about $1.1 million a year for two years from the bill, she says.

Meanwhile, legislation in the General Assembly that would authorize Triangle counties to tax themselves for new transit projects appeared stalled last week. Identical bills in both houses would allow urban counties to enact a 1/2-cent sales tax dedicated to transit with voters' approval.

Sen. Richard Stevens, R-Wake, the Senate bill's primary sponsor, said proponents agree House action should come first. "Time is running short" in the legislative session, but he thinks—because of the gas crisis—that there's a chance of success this year.

"The fact that [the bills have] a referendum requirement makes it more palatable on the Republican side," Stevens said.

Wake County Commissioners, Stevens said, want the bills amended to ensure that any such tax levied for Triangle Transit would require voter approval in each of three counties—Wake, Durham and Orange—and not just a winning vote overall. As the bills are written now, Stevens noted, a big "yes" vote in Durham and Orange could override a smaller "no" result in Wake.

A Trianglewide 1/2-cent sales tax would generate upward of $80 million a year to match state and federal dollars. The lack of such local matching funds helped doom the Raleigh-to-Durham rail project when it came up for final federal approval in 2006, just as the Bush administration was running out of transit money.

The future of transit in Wake County and the Triangle is the topic of a public forum hosted by WakeUP Wake County Thursday, June 26, at 6:30 p.m. at the N.C. State University McKimmon Center in Raleigh..

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