Our Turn for Transit

Geoff Green's picture

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.

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Total votes: 4

40 Comments

Ruby Sinreich's picture

Leadership, or the lack thereof

This is a good explanation of why the Transit Tax is important, but I guess Geoff is too polite to mention the Commissioners so far have been hemming and hawing about transit. They have been throwing up various obstacles as delay tactics, and some have even been pushing the process backward by questioning planning and policy decisions that were made years ago.Their leadership on this issue has been non-existent, and that's on a good day. If we care about having a local and regional sustainable transportation system in the future, we need to replace most of the current commissioners. I'll be voting for Mark Dorosin and Penny Rich for just this reason. 

When will the hearing start?

I know the session starts at 7 p.m., but do you know when the actual comment period on the transit tax will begin? I'd like to attend, but I don't want to sit there for an hour or two waiting for the transit discussion to begin. 

Ed Harrison's picture

Geoff''s inspiring comment

Geoff''s inspiring comment above contains this statement: "Durham [County] voters have approved a transit tax, and they will soon be enjoying improved bus service."  Unfortunately, this is not currently correct. As someone who worked a bit on the highly successful Fall 2011 referendum (won by 60-39 margin), my memory is the Durham City Council asked the Commissioners to delay collection of the sales tax until other counties had acted. Some members are now asking the Durham Commissioners to implement other fees enabled by the "multimodal bill" for transit funding. If  Orange and Wake fail to act promptly on referenda -- and Wake is certainly dragging heels at the Board of Commissioners level -- Durham County and City may revise this approach to pay for needed transit improvements. No elected officials have sent that signal yet. Ed HarrisonTriangle Transit board member for Chapel Hill 

Ruby Sinreich's picture

My rant

I might have lost a few friends when I spoke at the County Commissioners' meeting tonight. But hopefully I at least served to make Geoff Green, Jason Baker, Gerry Cohen and other transit supporters look quite reasonable by comparison. Here's what I said:I know all of you are fans of Orange County's natural environment. Many of you have worked for environmental policies in the past. If you have an understanding of transportation systems, you know that every time someone makes a choice not to drive their car, the whole county benefits. Even if *you* never set foot on a bus or train, when I do (as I do about twice a week to get to my job in Durham, and my husband does to get to his job in Raleigh) you reap the benefits of cleaner air, less traffic, increased spending at local businesses, healthier residents, and growth in the community's social capital - among other benefits.It used to be that the state looked to Orange County for leadership on transportation issues especially, and for forward-thinking policies in general. Today this county commission is lagging behind. As Commissioner Jacobs said a few months ago: we are now the caboose. Your job as elected officials is to lead, not just follow.If I sound a little angry, it's because I am. I think you Commissioners are pretty smart, and shouldn't have to have your arms twisted into supporting a no brainer like this transit tax. I have lived in Orange County since 1973, and I have started my own family here. I couldn't have a higher stake in the future of our community. Every day that you are not working to implement and support local and regional transit, you are dragging Orange County backward. Please lead us toward a sustainable future, or get out of the way. 

Need more rural support

It doesn't matter how right this plan sounds, the potential for the referendum to go down in flames is huge. It will need rural support to pass and like it or not the discrepancy between rural benefits and chapel hill Carrboro benefits is so huge, I don't think rural residents will support it. A vague promise of indirect benefits like saving gas or cleaner air is not enough to convince rural voters. I think they need something more tangible like economic development potential in rural areas and more transit services in the rural area.

Geoff Green's picture

Transit can't

Transit can't cost-effectively serve dispersed rural populations. It's just impractical. Services can be configured to accomodate those who need to use automobiles to reach transit, through shared-ride services or park-and-ride lots, but you can't just run bus services through rural areas and expect many people to ride them.What transit, and particularly light rail, can do is concentrate development along the transit corridors and nodes. That's something that Maryland has done reasonably effectively. Instead of having development sprawl outwards without any spatial constraints, and having the towns and county assume the hidden costs of long-term maintenance of extra roads, it is concentrated along the valuable transit-served areas It's not guaranteed, of course, and requires smart land-use planning by the local governments, but it's a solution.While flipping through the agenda and related materials before the meeting I came across an agreement by Maple View Farms to enter into a "voluntary agricultural district" agreement. I'm not certain what benefits the designation provides, but it's clearly an effort to help preserve agricultural lands from urban development. Recognizing that people are still moving to the region, and will move in greater numbers as the economy improves, the chances are low that even as beloeved an institution as Maple View Farms will be able to, in the long term, resist the pressures of subdivision development. If the goal of rural Orange County residents is to replace farmland with low-density subdivisions, then the transit plan is a bad idea because it helps to reduce these development pressures. But if development zones are clustered around transit access, like the enhanced access included in the transit plan, there's a better chance we'll be able to keep Maple View and its dairy products (sadly sold in shatter-friendly glass bottles) around.

Points well taken

Your points are true but the reality is that the numbers of this plan are not going to convince rural voters to vote for it. Hillsborough is not rural and could be a central place to provide transportation services to rural county commuters that could easily drive to hillsborough park and ride public transportation to chapel hill or the triangle. I think more services could be provided to give rural residents more commuting potential. The vast mojority of rural residents are not farmers and many work in Durham, Cary and Raleigh as well as chapel hill. Let's give them some way to get to work which is more environmentally friendly.

Geoff Green's picture

agreement

The plan does include service enhancements in Hillsborough, including expanded service to Durham and to Chapel Hill. Not sure about Raleigh, though. That's not to mention the Hillsborough Amtrak stop which could be a pretty big deal from an economic development perspective.

Amtrak

Amtrak service is awesome but if you look at the schedules ther is now ay you commute to Raleigh and back daily. Is it enough to get rural voters to vote for the referendum, I think not.

Erin Crouse's picture

Hillsborough isn't being ignored.

Under the plan, funding will increase 73% for Orange Public Transit, and there is discussion to place a new park and ride lot near the the intersection of NC 86 & US 70. And that's in addition to the rail station. You can see slides from last night's powerpoint here: http://www.co.orange.nc.us/occlerks/1204176a.pdf I agree that more could be done to help with transit in Hillsborough and the rest of the county, but it is misleading at best to say that they aren't getting any of the money.

Rural transportation money

I was surprised to hear a comment that the light rail would utilize 91% of the orange county transit expenditures so I looked up the April 3 hearing PDF and found that the MLK bus rapid transit gets another 6% adding to 97% of the costs benefiting chapel hill and Carrboro leaving somewhere south of 3% to rural orange county. 73% of the meager 3% of the total expenditures is pretty much nothing and not enough to build rural orange county support for the plan. I apologize for playing devils advocate but the reality is that voters will authorize the tax and I don't think the numbers are there to convince rural voters to pass it. I myself think we should do it and do it with light rail but I am just looking at the numbers. You can portray rural county voters as fools and imply the commissioners lack leadership but In the end we have to build support to pass this thing.

Geoff Green's picture

That's capital costs (I

That's capital costs (I assume; there are no numbers attached to the chart, so it's not particularly clear.) Those are necessary because both MLK and NC-54 are congested main roads which serve UNC and the hospital. I'm not sure how the capital costs could be broken down any other way, because I'm not sure how large capital expenditures could be used to help rural OC. The rural county capital funds come in the form of road construction and maintenance. Other funds go to the rural areas that don't go to the towns, such as sherrif services, because that's where those services are necessary. That's simply the way transit works.I expect the breakdown is similar elsewhere, even someplace like the NY metropolitan area. Of the more than $10 billion of transit projects taking place there right now, I'd bet more than 90% is being spent on three enormous transit projects in Manhattan. It's not spread equally by population throughout the region because that's not how transit works. It's because that's where the projects are needed, and that's where the economic core of the metropolitan area is located.(As an aside, about 57.4% of the county's population live in Chapel Hill and Carrboro. I'm willing to guess that a good deal more than 57.4% of the county's revenue comes from taxes paid by and in the two towns, both property and sales taxes.) Operating costs are much more widely distributed. Again going by the chart, and not sure exactly the metric thanks to a lack of details, CHT gets 64% of the additional bus hours. I believe that includes some service that goes to destinations outside Chapel Hill. As CH & Carborro are about 60% of the county's population, that seems appropriate. 24% goes to TT, much of which goes towards service expansions to and from Hillsborough. The rest goes to OC transit.

Erin Crouse's picture

It isn't 73% of the 3% in

It isn't 73% of the 3% in total expenditures. It's 12% of the bus expenditures, which is a 73% increase over what OPT is getting now, and 17k new hours of bus service. It's all in that link I posted. I don't know where you are getting the 91%. According to the Orange Bus and Rail Investment plan, County expenditures should be as follows:Rail Capital: $423 million ($330 million in 2011 dollars) Rail Operations: $58 million Bus Capital: $41 million (including MLK Bus Lanes) Bus Operations: $127 million Debt: $23 millionIf you do math, bus operations would be about 19% of the total expenditures.

Cost expenditures chart

Cost expenditures chart April 3 hearing PowerPoint attachment. Looking at your numbers above show overwhelming number of dollars going to chapel hill. How much of bus operations actually goes to support rural orange county. We can argue back and forth but you don't have to convince me but we need some method to convince rural voters to support the referendum and I don't believe we have convincing arguments yet.

Geoff Green's picture

Corrected information from Triangle Transit

I attended today's public information session in Chapel Hill on the draft bus and rail transit plan, and as Brad promised below, there was updated information available about the funding distribution. TT staff told me they would try to put it on the website this week. Essentially, the OC dollars spent beginning in 2013 through 2045 are divided up as follows:Rail capital: 28%Rail operations: 17%Bus capital: 2%Bus operations: 43%Debt service: 10%One important thing to note is that a good portion of federal funding for transit comes in the form of new buses, and very little (if at all) in funding for operations.  I assume that the minimal share of spending on bus capital is a reflection of that fact and not a projection that we'll be riding the same buses in 2045 that we're riding now in 2012.I took pictures of a couple of the displays and posted them to my twitter account @geoff_green . Kristen Smith was there as well and posted some herself @kcs_tarheel 

BRT question

I'm not sure I'm understanding BRT correctly. With light rail, I know that building the system would require land purchases for new rail. But with BRT, does it require 2 additional lanes (1 in each direction) be added to each road on the route?

harrycjohnson's picture

It depends

In order to be effective, BRT needs separate and private lanes in each direction.  It also needs pullouts at stops so that people can board and effective signal prioritizaiton.  The most well-known brt system in the world, Bogata, has 2 lanes in each direction.  NC 54 does not have that potential, especially given the fact that it passes through wetlands.   I was at the open house tonight and heard some encouraging words from Earl McKee and Steve Youshaz.  Neither of them are fans of light rail but they understand that the 1/2 cent sales tax is necessary to be in the game for better transit and land use decisions in the future.  I was dissapointed, but not surprised, by the comments of several Chapel Hill residents that the town will not grow over the next 20 years, and that we can keep development out by prohibiting density.  It's a regrettable line of thinking that doesn't position the town for smart growth in the future.

Geoff Green's picture

more

To followup on what Harry says, "BRT" is a bit of a catchall and has been degrated from what it used to mean. Proper BRT service, like in Bogota, can offer almost-rail like levels of service, but requires dedicated lanes, dedicated buses, rail-like stations, off-board ticketing, and raised platforms, all in a reserved corridor with signal priority. (On heavily trafficed corridors you really need four lanes, but that's never going to happen here.) The enhanced service that's being discussed on MLK will have advantages, but I personally think it's  unlikely that it will have one dedicated lane in each direction, or that it will have the priority it will need at intersections to provide notably faster service. In addition, there's no scenario in which BRT or BRT-lite or whatever you want to call it can extend south of Estes, given the width of the corridor at that point.

Ed Harrison's picture

*True BRT*

Have just returned from almost three days studying BRT and light rail with other elected officials and professional transportation planners. The trip was sponsored by the Regional Transportation Alliance (and funded in my case by TTA). Harry and Geoff have both pointed out the key to Bus RAPID Transit: the exclusive right of way for use by specific bus routes. In every example we studie  (by riding them) -- the Healthline BRT in Cleveland, and some five busways, one light rail route, and one subway, in Pittsburgh -- the BRT was always designed in every way to mimic rail. The most likely attempt to use BRT in Chapel Hill will be in the MLK corridor, for which an application could be put together within the next two years. The amount of current use easily justifies, but the road ownership (NC) and the heavy auto use, bot north south and from the intersecting streets, makes it "challenging." That's the term the Pittsburgh planners use for routes that have to run up and down all those steep hills there.  Much further out, US 15-501 east of Eastgate is a potential route, but the delivery need for passengers does not begin to approach the single-point goal available in the MLK corridor, now and later, the UNC main campus.  Ed Harrison

gercohen's picture

down in flames?

amoose says "the potential for the referendum to go down in flames is huge ...  It will need rural support to pass "Actually, any reasonable analysis of voting patterns in presidential elections would indicate that in fact the proposal would not need substantial rural support to pass. (In 2008 68% of the vote was cast in Chapel Hill Township) That does NOT mean that rural areas should be ignored, in fact the proposal needs to be beefed up with more Mebane-Hillsborough-Durham (Duke) service as well as park-and-ride into Chapel Hill.

First go round of sales tax

Remember the first go round of sales tax. It was defeated by voters mostly from rural orange county. They had to bring it back up A second time in a period where rural voters where guaranteed to not turn out to pass it. If you look at the numbers the second go round had rural overwhelming numbers against the tax but no enough to defeat since turnout was low due to nothing to vote for other than the sales tax.

gercohen's picture

rural urban shift

actually the rural urban prooprtion in turnout between 2011 and 2010 was 4% more urban in 2011, not a giant shift, but voting in the general election is still a better idea for all sorts of reasons.  Perhaps the 2010 referendum failed because it was a poorly thought out plan that was poorly promoted?

gercohen's picture

the real problem as I see it

Last night we had three strains of thought:1) Pro bus and rail -- largely environmentalists and students.2) Anti-bus and rail -- primarily rural, including one speaker who said that all current buses he sees are empty, that Chapel Hill is "unviable", "no one takes trains" and "I do not want to take the train to Durham and be dumped off in the middle of nowhere"3) Chapel Hill NIMBY - pro-bus but in appearance anti-rail over what seems to be development issues. One speaker ranted on about how students leave after graduation and really did not pay for the buses now. One speaker said the solution was to get poor people fuel efficient cars.I think the real threat is group 3 not group 2.

Erin Crouse's picture

I agree, Gerry. And I know

I agree, Gerry. And I know you know this, but I'm going to says it so everyone else knows: the person last night who said that students don't pay for transit is absolutely wrong. UNC pays the lion's share of funding for Chapel Hill Transit, which is mostly funded through a substantial transit fee that is part of students' tuition. And if the referendum passes, everyone (including students, and alums who come back to visit) will pay sales tax on what they buy.

It's even worse

Even though UNC students pay a substantial percentage of the funding for CHT (41 percent), they don't have commiserate representation on the Transportation Board. And, of course, students pay property taxes through their outrageously high rents (due in part to the town's feet-dragging on expanding the housing supply). 

Ed Harrison's picture

UNC on Transportation Board

I was Town Council liaison to the Transportation Board for six years, longer than any other Council Member . When it became clear that student appointees either didn't show up , or stopped coming after a year or so -- for three year terms -- another method was sought for representation. The new arrangement is that the student body president appoints a specific individual in his her administration to sit on the T Board. I believe it's been made clear to such appointees that they have a set term and should attend the bulk of the meetings. I stand to be corrected by any current T Board members.The Council voted 9-0 to approve Shortbread Lofts, a sizable (seven-story) development in downtown very likely to be filled with students who will pay very high rents for excellent location and amenities. There's a harder case to make for student developments further from campus, most if not all will also be high-rent. UNC's "a bed for every head" concept of a while back hasn't worked out quite that way, and I won't cast blame for that.   Ed Harrison

Perhaps student-terms should be shorter

Does the Transportation Board really need to operate with three-year terms? One-year terms seem more reasonable. Alternately, UNC could have be allotted non-student slots as well, given that they contribute so much to bus operations. In general, I'm very happy with the bus transit here, though I wish the university would build on its in-town parking lots to expand demand for the bus. Students pay high rents in part because the town limits construction in neighborhoods close to the university (bed/head notwithstanding). But, even if the town decided to up-zone the entire downtown core in order to drive down the cost of living here, students would still be paying property taxes through their rents.  

Bed for every head

The bed for every head promise was limited to freshmen and the university has exceeded that promise. There are currently 400 unused beds at UNC. Student demand does not equal what the community would like it to be.

Federal moneys

Even if we get the referendum passed, we need to work hard to elect federal and state representatives that support public transportation and providing money from he federal 18 cents per gallon and state 38 cents per gallon gas tax per gallon for public transportation. If we have no federal dollars and the referendum passes then the core orange county plan is implemented with no light rail and not many benefits to Chapel Hill and Carrboro.

Updated Information - Orange Transit Plan Estimates

The figures used from the April 3 County Commissioners packet for the cost percentage of the plan for light rail being discussed in recent threads are unfortunately inaccurate.   We were not given these materials in time to check all of the information from our partners before they were presented. We anticipate that the correct information will be available at the Orange Transit Plan Public Engagement meetings on April 23 in Chapel Hill and April 30 in Hillsborough.  More information on the upcoming workshops is available at www.ourtransitfuture.com

Brad Schulz, Communications Officer with Triangle Transit