Orange County could see improved transit if half-cent sales tax is passed

A half-cent sales tax to fund transit improvements and a light-rail transit system could pass more easily in Orange County now that it’s gained support in Durham, officials say.

On Nov. 8, Durham County approved a referendum for a half-cent sales tax, which will help fund bus, commuter rail and light-rail services between Orange, Wake and Durham counties.

A similar tax needs to be approved in both Orange and Wake before Durham can spend money from the tax, Chapel Hill Town Council member Ed Harrison said.

He said the earliest the half-cent sales tax would be put to referendum in Orange County would be in the May primary election.
Brad Schulz, communications officer for Triangle Transit, said the Orange County Board of Commissioners should create a final plan for routing in early 2012 and decide the best time to put the half-cent sales tax to referendum.

The half-cent tax would come in addition to a separate quarter-cent sales tax increase passed in Orange County to be used for economic development and education.

Steve Yuhasz, vice chairman of the commissioners, said the two taxes don’t strongly correlate and he thinks the passage in Durham County will help the tax pass in Orange County.

“We just have to wait and see what the voters think,” Yuhasz said.

Commissioner Pam Hemminger said she thinks the transit system will bring economic development to the area and solve traffic and parking problems.

“I think it’s a big win for Chapel Hill especially,” she said. “Traffic is becoming an overwhelming issue in our district.”

The transit plan will consist of three phases, the first of which will expand and improve the bus service. The second phase will build a commuter rail, which would run separately from automobile traffic. The third would be a light rail that runs from UNC Hospitals to Alston Avenue in Durham.

“Ultimately, it allows high capacity transit to get to the University,” Harrison said.

Towns in the county have seen a flurry of activity related to the tax since it passed in Durham.

On Monday, Triangle Transit staff briefed members of the Chapel Hill Town Council on routing options for the Durham-Orange transit corridor.

The county government will have to make choices about technology, endpoints and routing to qualify for federal funding and plans to take town perspectives into account.

Commissioners will decide between two possible lines for the light rail.

Chapel Hill Town Council held a public hearing on the alternatives Monday, and the Carrboro Board of Aldermen and county commissioners will discuss it tonight.

Jonathan Parker, a transportation planner at Triangle Transit who presented the plan to Town Council members, said the light rail could foster growth and development. Shulz agreed.

“It helps to create and support communities around it,” Schulz said.

He said the light rail would have faster travel times than a bus rail transit, which was also considered.

Contact the City Editor at city@dailytarheel.com.

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