Wake commissioners spar over transit plan

tgoldsmith@newsobserver.com June 11, 2012 

Democrats on the Wake County Board of Commissioners pushed Chairman Paul Coble and his GOP colleagues Monday on their refusal to allow a July public hearing on a proposed regional mass transportation plan.

It wasn’t the first time Democratic commissioner Erv Portman made the suggestion, which was voted down in a full board meeting last week. In heated exchanges that continued after the meeting, Coble and Portman went head to head on whether the plan should have a public airing.

“I think it’s really important that we hold a public meeting at the next meeting, to hear from people both for it and people opposed to the plan,” said Portman, a Cary businessman. “It’s public business, and I think it needs to be on the commissioners’ table.”

Responded Coble: “We are not going to decide this in a brief period of time. We’re talking about a large amount of money and a large amount of future money.”

Democratic members reminded Coble that the issue of a regional plan involving Durham and Orange counties has been before the board in various forms since at least 2008.

Durham voters have said yes to a half-cent sales-tax increase for transit investments. But the county won’t collect the tax until Orange County, which votes in November, and Wake decide whether to follow suit.

Along with beefed-up bus service right away and light-rail lines 15 or 20 years from now, the Durham and Wake transit taxes also would help pay for rush-hour trains that could roll by 2019. They would serve mostly commuters and students, with 12 stations from West Durham through RTP to the east side of Garner.

Commissioners Tony Gurley and Phil Matthews, backing Coble, questioned how much public support there is for the plan and how heavily the buses and trains would be used. Their Republican colleague, Joe Bryan, said education and other priorities should come before the transit plan.

Supporting Portman, Democratic commissioners Betty Lou Ward and James West said the plan is a farsighted investment into the region’s future.

“I think there’s a tremendous relationship between jobs and education and transportation,” West said.

Added Ward, “It seems to me as our population grows ... we are going to need to have that mass transportation to relieve the roads.”

Coble noted several times that Monday’s meeting had been scheduled only for discussion of the county budget. Finally, Coble declared Portman out of order when Portman made a motion for a public hearing on the transit issues.

“We will get to that, but we are not going to have that debate now,” Coble said. “Anything else on the budget? We are adjourned.”

Staff writer Bruce Siceloff contributed to this report.

Goldsmith: 919-829-8929

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