In a 77-40 vote Tuesday, the House gave preliminary approval to a local-option sales tax for bus and rail transit service, after turning back a move to let some of the money be spent for roads.
"We can't build but so many roads here," said Rep. Mickey Michaux, a Durham Democrat, endorsing the transit bill.
The measure would let commissioners in three Triangle and two Triad urban counties levy a half-cent sales tax -- if local voters agree -- for bus and rail transit improvements. The money also could be spent on express highway lanes for buses and car pools.
"Each community is different, and this bill empowers each community to do what is best for it," said Rep. Deborah Ross, a Raleigh Democrat and one of the bill sponsors.
But Rep. Cary Allred, a Burlington Republican, said it was wrong to "ask working people to pay more and more" in taxes.
"I don't think anybody in this state is ever going to ride a train on a regular basis -- unless they do not own an automobile or gasoline prices are more than $5 a gallon," he said.
The tax would raise about $90 million a year in Wake, Durham and Orange counties, enough to jump start a 25-year plan for 300 new buses and more than 50 miles of electric-powered light rail.
Triangle counties also could increase the car registration fee that supports transit, from $5 to $8 a year. Research Triangle Park employers would have the option to raise about $4 million a year in property taxes for transit.
The measure would let rural counties seek voter approval for a quarter-cent sales tax for transit service. The legislation also sets up a program to provide future state funding for ports and freight and passenger railroads as well as rural and urban transit service.
Rep. Ric Killian, a Charlotte Republican, sought an amendment to let counties spend sales tax money on roads.
"Mass transit is not going to take care of all of our issues," said Rep. Marilyn Avila, a Raleigh Republican, supporting Killian's amendment. His proposal was turned back by a 64-53 vote.
Rep. Darren Jackson, an eastern Wake Democrat, said the sales tax would help bring public transportation to rural and suburban areas.
"This bill isn't just about light rail," he said. "This bill is also about bus service. I live in a part of Wake County where we will be getting bus service, hopefully, by Labor Day."
If the bill wins final approval it moves to the Senate, where the chief sponsor is Sen. Richard Stevens, a Cary Republican.
The next steps would be up to local officials. Before county commissioners decided whether to hold a referendum on a local sales tax, they would have to adopt transit and finance plans to spell out how the money would be spent.