What a difference a year makes. Something tells us that last fall, with anti-tax tea partyers in full cry, asking voters to agree to raise sales taxes for transit and schools would have been a waste of effort.
Nowadays, the political climate seems to have moderated a bit. Perhaps left-leaning Durham and Orange counties don't amount to very good bellwethers. But still, when tax-hike referendums went before the voters there Tuesday, the verdict in both instances was thumbs-up. That's a good sign of public support for basic community improvements, even if it ends up costing shoppers just a bit more.
And there was a larger significance to the Durham results. If county commissioners go ahead and put the tax into effect, it could represent the first step toward financing a new regional effort to upgrade transit options. As it stands, Durham's backing provides crucial momentum that could help muster support down the road, or down the tracks, in the other core Triangle counties of Orange and Wake.
A solid 60 percent of Durham's voters favored increasing the local sales tax by half a percentage point for transit projects. The new levy would raise on the order of $17.3 million a year at the outset. What might folks get for their money?
No doubt key to the referendum's passage was that it could soon lead to an expansion of bus service. Like other forms of mass transit, buses to be successful have to be convenient and reliable. That means plenty of buses on the road, running well-planned and efficient routes. Using new sales tax revenue to beef up Durham's bus network would mean benefits for many people in the short run.
It also addresses a well-founded objection to sales taxes - that they hit lower-income people harder than the well-off. While a good bus system can appeal to people in all income groups, it's a simple fact that it can be more useful to those who might not always have a dependable car in the driveway. So paying an extra half-cent on the dollar at the cash register can translate into a worthwhile investment.
The Triangle's transit stumbling block has not been bus service, but rail. An ambitious three-county plan for a commuter rail line had to be scrapped when federal funding was pulled. But new concepts are coming off the drawing boards, and Durham's tax would help move things along.
A light rail line between Durham's downtown and UNC Hospitals would get a boost, as would proposed commuter rail service into Wake County. If the Triangle is to take what looks to be a necessary step as the metropolitan area continues to grow and become more congested, our communities have to figure out where rail initially makes the most sense. By moving to help foot the bill, Durham offers an answer to that question.
Wake County remains the big challenge, in terms of overcoming a level of skepticism toward rail tied largely to the expense. But connections through Research Triangle Park and into downtown Durham will make rail on the Wake side of the line a more attractive prospect. County commissioners in Wake now have a good springboard from which to launch their own transit tax referendum next year. Raleigh voters' approval last month of a transportation bond issue was another sign of favorable political winds.
Durham agreed to a quarter-cent sales tax increase for schools, and Orange followed suit with a similar increase for both schools and economic development projects. Times are tough in the recession's aftermath, but voters in these counties understand the importance of cultivating their assets. Their harvest will come in new schools and better ways to get around - in other words, in creating better places to live.