County officials consider half-cent tax for proposed light rail

Orange County Democrats jumped on board this weekend to support a sales tax increase that could determine the fate of a proposed light rail connecting Chapel Hill and Durham.

On Saturday, the Orange County Democratic Party passed a resolution to place a half-cent sales tax increase on the November ballot.

But some local officials and residents are hesitant to implement another sales tax increase after the county implemented a quarter-cent sales tax on April 1 to benefit education and economic development.

Chairman Matt Hughes said the resolution was passed because the planned light rail would promote economic development along U.S. 15-501 and I-40.

“Quite frankly, adding more lanes to a highway is not the answer to our growth problems,” he said.

The Orange County Board of Commissioners will vote June 5 whether to put the tax increase referendum on the November ballot.

Revenue from the tax would be used to fund the regional transit system, primarily the proposed 17-mile light rail.

Bernadette Pelissier, chairwoman of the board, said putting the proposed increase on the ballot would demonstrate the county’s effort to invest in a light rail, which might increase chances for state and federal funding.

“We need to show we’re committed to this,” she said.

Pelissier said the tax would also be a step forward in unifying Orange County’s transit goals with Durham County, which passed a similar tax in November.

She said if the tax does not pass, the county will be unable to build a light rail in the near future.

“It would be a great disappointment not just for Orange County but for Durham too,” she said.

Pelissier said she hopes the board will approve the referendum, but the decision would ultimately be left to the voters.

But Commissioner Earl McKee said he doesn’t think now is the right time to put a sales tax increase on the ballot, citing the quarter-cent increase passed in November.

“This is a major issue that will have long-term consequences for the tax base,” he said.

McKee said he doesn’t think the construction of a light rail is a worthwhile use of taxpayer dollars because it does not meet the needs of the county as a whole.

“We need to have much more discussion and much more planning,” he said.

McKee said he is not opposed to a light rail in the future, but he thinks efforts to expand transit service should now be focused on improving bus lines in Mebane and Hillsborough.

Brian Evans, a UNC doctoral student, said he would support the tax if it improved bus service.

Orange County resident Tony Gore said he doesn’t want to see another tax increase because he is on a fixed income.

“I would do anything to oppose that,” he said.

Hughes urged critics of the plan to understand that a light rail would benefit people who commute from surrounding areas.

“It’s not just a Chapel Hill-Carrboro concentrated plan,” he said.

The Board of Commissioners will hold a public hearing on the proposed Orange County Transit Plan at 7 p.m. tonight at the Southern Human Services Center.

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