Durham County voters took a big first step for themselves and their neighbors last week when they approved a new local sales tax to make down payments on a 25-year, $3.5 billion three-county transportation network of buses and trains.
But Triangle transit prospects will stay in limbo for another year while Wake and Orange counties decide whether to schedule tax referendums next November.
Political and demographic alignments in the two counties, especially Wake, may not be as favorable for the transit tax as in Durham.
The evolving plans for Orange and Wake focus most of the trains and buses where the most people live, in the urban centers of Raleigh-Cary and Chapel Hill-Carrboro.
The transit tax could be a tougher sell in rural northern Orange and some of Wake's outlying towns.
And the Republican majority on Wake's board of commissioners has been cool to anything involving taxes and trains.
"We're in tough economic times," said Paul Coble, chairman of the Wake board, which will discuss transit plans at a work session today.
"We need to be careful not only how we spend money, but how we commit future revenues."
Durham voters did commit themselves Tuesday, by a 60 percent majority, to a new half-cent sales tax that will generate $18.4 million a year for transit improvements.
Durham County's first spending will focus on a fast expansion of local bus service. Next comes a 37-mile rush-hour commuter train from Durham through Research Triangle Park and Raleigh to Garner. Later, a 17-mile light-rail line from Durham to Chapel Hill.
Transit advocates in Wake drew encouragement from Durham's example.
"We all feel like this is within reach," said Karen Rindge, executive director of WakeUP Wake County, a group that lobbies for transit improvements and responsible growth.
Betty Lou Ward, a Wake commissioner and a Democrat, applauded the "perfectly wonderful" Durham vote.
"Learning from your neighbors is a good thing," Ward said. "I'm really proud of them for passing this."
But Durham officials won't collect the new tax or spend the money until the other two counties decide what to do. The half-cent tax would generate $5.1 million in Orange and $54 million in Wake each year.
"Our bus and rail investment plan is directly tied to our neighbors," said Ellen Reckhow, a Durham County commissioner and a Democrat.
"Until we know what they are doing, we don't really have a plan to implement, so we're going to wait.
"I certainly hope they proceed. We want to build a regional system. We stepped forward first to light a path and create some momentum for the region to move forward."
Coble said better bus service is a good idea, but rail transit is a poor fit for the Triangle.
"We've spent 50 years spreading ourselves out and trying to disperse traffic,"Coble said. "To try to use a rail system that focuses very narrowly is going to miss the vast amount of traffic in the Triangle."
Poll: Public in support
Polls in recent years show general support for transit plans in all three counties, with the numbers consistently strongest in Durham. A poll in March by a pro-transit business group found support for the transit sales tax at 60 percent in Durham County, 59 percent in Orange and 51 percent in Wake.
Coming in a major election year, Wake's transit debate will be inseparable from statewide politics. Coble is a candidate in the May GOP primary for the 13th District congressional seat, and fellow commissioner Tony Gurley is a GOP primary candidate for lieutenant governor.
Transit and taxes have been unpopular with Republicans at every level, but it's not clear how the issues will play out for a candidate expected to head the state GOP ticket in 2012.
Pat McCrory, the leading contender for his party's gubernatorial spot, blazed a trail for transit taxes when he served as mayor of Charlotte.
McCrory worked with Democrats to sell a half-cent transit sales tax to legislators in Raleigh and then to voters in Mecklenburg County in 1998. He presided over Charlotte's bus expansion and championed North Carolina's first light-rail line there as a magnet for economic development.
One Wake Republican, Commissioner Joe Bryan, is more enthusiastic than Coble about transit improvements and about Durham's vote.
"I commend the Durham citizenry on their vote to make an additional investment in transportation," Bryan said. "But I think the market is a little bit different in Wake County. There's not quite that level of support yet."
Bryan said he hopes eventually to see Wake develop a "comprehensive, robust transportation system." But he struggles to balance transit needs with more urgent problems and hasn't decided whether to push for a transit tax vote next November.
"My hesitancy is that where I see the needs of our county today is more toward the core types of things: education and human services," Bryan said. "That's where I feel a larger, more immediate responsibility."
Staff writer Matt Garfield contributed to this report.