Some Carrboro aldermen want more evidence from GoTriangle that a proposed light-rail line running from Chapel Hill to Durham will be economically sustainable and a boon to Carrboro residents.
Though Alderwoman Randee Haven-O’Donnell said she supports public transit in general, and light rail in particular, she told GoTriangle officials she’s having a hard time explaining how the current plan will serve the town of Carrboro.
“I’m increasingly worried about this plan,” she said. “I cannot believe that the most densely populated municipality in the state of North Carolina will not have a rail stop, or that the bus rapid transit plan is (in Chapel Hill) but not directly coming into Carrboro. Local share should also be local service. How do I explain to our constituents that they will be paying for a share of services they will never have?”
GoTriangle officials are working to update the Orange County Transit Plan, which includes the 17.7 mile light-rail line, bus rapid transit along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Chapel Hill, an Amtrak train station in Hillsborough, and increased bus service throughout Orange County.
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The plan was first adopted in 2012 by the Orange County Board of Commissioners. Voters approved a half-cent sales tax referendum, which, along with revenues from vehicle taxes and fees, was intended to fund the local portion of the nearly $2.5 billion plan.
The plan hinges on funding from the state and federal government, but state legislators last year capped spending on rail projects at 10 percent of a project’s total budget, which translates to a loss of $250 million for the Durham-Orange Light Rail Project.
Federal funding could pay for up to half of the project, but the final amount has yet to be determined, as the Federal Transit Administration is currently reviewing the plan.
GoTriangle Project Manager Danny Rogers told the Board of Aldermen the transit authority is working with consultants to come up with a new debt restructuring plan that would use federal transportation loans to manage cash flow for the project until state and federal money is available.
“From a construction perspective we can deliver it in 2026. We can do the work to get it done. From a funding perspective that’s very difficult,” said Rogers, noting FTA caps how much money Go Triangle can spend each year.
“In order to make our financial plan, we had to stretch out how long it took to construct it so that our expenditures would match our revenues,” he told the board.
He said that financing plan would add two years to the construction time line and increase administrative costs, resulting in a 4 percent cost increase over 2011 estimates.
John Tallmadge, GoTriangle’s director of regional services development, told the board to expect changes in the financial model when the new draft is released in mid-April.
“Since we adopted these plans, there were changes to federal funding rules, and big changes to the state funding rules, so pretty much everything we’re doing, if we want to move at all forward, is relying more on the local sales tax and the local registration fees,” Tallmadge said. Financial analysis from Moody’s Analytics projected growth in sales tax revenue in years to come, he said.
Several board members, including Sammy Slade, expressed skepticism about a funding model that relies heavily on local sales tax dollars. Slade said he couldn’t support a revised plan unless it included analysis of an economic crisis similar to the financial meltdown of 2008.
“Assuming a financial crisis like we had last time, or worse, what would that look like and how would we fill that gap?” Slade asked. “I’m really worried when we’re talking about a change in a financial plan that had much more seemingly safe sources of money from the federal and state government, and moves to a more shaky dependence on sales tax revenues to fill that gap.”
Why aren’t we using buses that could serve more people and more routes?
Jacquie Gist, alderwoman
Alderwoman Jacquie Gist questioned the value of the rail line, saying she’s not convinced there’s widespread support throughout the community.
“I’m not hearing a lot of people who want this,” said Gist. “There’s a small group of zealots who want it.”
She pushed for expanded bus service instead.
“You still can’t get a bus back to Carrboro from campus past seven o’clock at night without waiting a long time,” Gist said. “Why aren’t we using buses that could serve more people and more routes?”
Mayor Lydia Lavelle and Alderman Damon Seils defended the transit plan, touting it as a shared amenity that would benefit residents throughout Orange County.
Seils reminded board members of the success of the 2012 transit sales tax referendum, and urged them to use this time to offer constructive criticism to shape the new draft plan.
“Personally, as a zealot for public transit, I think it’s important for us to understand that it’s simply untrue to say this plan doesn’t serve Carrboro,” said Seils. “It does. We’re working hard to make sure it does.”
Changes to the transit plan will need to be approved by Orange County Board of Commissioners, GoTriangle, and the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro Metropolitan Planning Organization, all of which are slated to review proposed changes in the coming weeks before adopting an updated plan in June.