The Orange County Board of Commissioners will vote in May, one week after the primary election, whether to put a half-cent transit tax on the ballot for voters to decide. The transit tax is a critical component of our region's long-term transit and growth plans, and it's time for Orange County voters to join Durham County and vote for expanded transit service to ensure a more sustainable Orange County in the future.
An expansion in transit service is needed because of our region's land-gobbling form of growth. Orange County alone has nearly doubled in population since 1980, but the amount of land used for development has grown even more swiftly. A recent study found that, while the population of the Triangle has increased by 130%, the amount of developed land grew by a startling 650%, five times as fast. As a result, we've become one of the top gas-guzzling regions in the nation.
This sprawling pattern of growth has required us to build more and more roads and has degraded the environment. It has also degraded our quality of life, forcing us to spend more time in the car driving longer distances to get to work or play. Moreover, increasing congestion on our roads makes commutes and leisure trips unpredictable and stressful.
All this sprawl makes us entirely dependent on expensive automobiles and the gas needed to fuel them. Those who can't or don't want to drive, like teenagers or the elderly, have a difficult time getting around on their own because the sprawl pushes their destinations farther and farther apart. And, while it may be an inconvenience for some, it’s a disaster for poorer members of our community who have no way to access jobs or social services without using an automobile but who don’t have the resources to own one.
To maintain our high quality of life as our region continues to attract new residents, we need to grow smarter. Recent college graduates want to live in urban, walkable communities, and they prefer to spend their time and money on iPhones and other technology instead of expensive automobiles. They want to text and tweet and use social media, and you can't do those things while you drive. There are also many people who don’t have the money to spend on expensive automobiles or anything else, and they too need effective and accessible transportation. Meanwhile, experts like Mitchell Silver, Raleigh's planning director, project that as the elderly population grows there will be an increase in the number of people unable to drive. Cities, towns, and counties will need to adapt to facilitate these changes.
That's why we need the transit tax. This half-cent sales tax will be a local source of funding devoted entirely to transit, and it will support a series of programs that will shape future growth in Orange County and the entire region in a more environmentally responsible, sustainable, and equitable fashion.
The transit tax will have two key impacts. First, it will fund significant expansion of bus service throughout Orange County. The draft transit plan will provide tens of thousands of additional hours of bus service within three years, such as circulator service in Hillsborough; new and expanded regional service between Hillsborough, Durham, Mebane, and Chapel Hill; and expanded local bus service in Carrboro and Chapel Hill. The benefits in Chapel Hill and Carrboro will include increased service on evenings and weekends, when most of our current bus routes are idle. This service may well save lives by reducing the need for teens, elderly drivers, and party-goers to get behind the wheel.
In the longer term, the transit tax will help fund the construction and operation of a regional light-rail system connecting Chapel Hill and Durham. Scheduled to run from UNC Hospitals to downtown Durham, the rail line will help spur economic growth and new transit-oriented development at several stops along the route. This dense development will be sustainable, in contrast with the sprawl that has defined our region for so long. It will be the backbone of the expanded regional transit system, and a compelling alternative to the increasing traffic and congestion along NC 54, US 15-501, and the other roads connecting Durham and Chapel Hill.
Charlotte voters approved a transit tax several years ago, and they now are reaping the benefits of a light-rail line whose ridership has exceeded all projections, including more than $1 billion of development around station stops.
Much has already happened. Durham voters have approved a transit tax, and they will soon be enjoying improved bus service. The proposed light-rail line has cleared its first hurdle with the regional governments' approval of the "Locally Preferred Alternative" route. A detailed engineering and environmental analysis of the route will soon take place. Plans also are being readied to put the expanded bus service into operation once Orange County voters approve the tax.
Orange County voters ultimately will approve the transit tax. However, before that happens, the Orange County commissioners must put the transit tax on the November ballot. Groups such as Durham-Orange Friends of Transit, a region-wide transit advocacy group, and Tar Heels for Transit, a UNC student group, are lobbying the county commissioners to put the transit tax on the ballot. Contact the county commissioners via e-mail or attend a public hearing to voice your support for the transit plan, and encourage candidates running in May's primary for the Board of Commissioners to support the transit plan.
In North Carolina, Charlotte has had great success shaping its growth with a transit tax. Now it's our turn.