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July 21, 2014

Road Worrier: Wake GOP warms up to transit as NC Senate Republicans chill

Wake commissioners will hire a consultant to update a 2011 county plan for rail transit and more buses - possibly in time for voters to decide in October 2015 whether to adopt a half-cent sales tax to pay for transit investments.

Just as state Senate GOP leaders start pushing legislation that could make it hard for Wake County to get moving on a big transit plan, Wake GOP leaders say they finally are ready to get moving on a big transit plan.

The Republican-led county commissioners took transit out of cold storage Monday with a pledge to launch a new, fast study of bus and rail transit improvement options for Wake County. They laid out a brisk timetable for asking questions and getting answers in time to decide by next summer whether to put a transit plan – and a half-cent sales tax to help pay for it – on the October 2015 referendum ballot.

“We’re ready,” County Manager Jim Hartmann told the commissioners. “This is where we’re going to start moving a little bit at warp speed.”

The commissioners hope by early September to hire a consultant who will coordinate efforts to freshen up a county transit plan that was received and tabled by commissioners in 2011. Hartmann, who brought transit experience from Virginia and Florida when he came to Wake this spring, will oversee the new study.

Meanwhile, the Senate Finance Committee met Monday afternoon to consider a bill that would restrict the county’s sales tax options. Counties would be limited to local sales taxes totaling 2.5 percent. Wake now has a 2 percent local sales tax and is allowed under current law to raise it to 2.75 percent – so this would reduce Wake’s revenue options.

If this bill became law, it could force Wake to choose between a prospective half-cent tax for transit and a quarter-cent to boost teacher salaries, as has been suggested by some commissioners. Revised options aired in the Senate committee Monday would also let Wake and other counties add a quarter-cent tax for transit and a quarter-cent for education, or replace one of those with a quarter-cent for general purpose needs.

‘Problematic legislation’

Political and business leaders said that if the General Assembly forces county officials to choose between transit and education, transit will lose.

“That’s problematic legislation for transit,” County Commissioner Joe Bryan, a Republican, said after Monday’s meeting. “You want local control. You want local options. If I have to choose between education and transportation, I think most county commissioners are going to choose education.”

Bryan and Harvey Schmitt, president of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, said they have let local legislators know their concerns about the Senate bill.

“If we have to wait for the state to solve all our problems, we’ll wait a long time,” Schmitt said. “We need some tools to do it ourselves.”

But there was no mention at the commissioners’ meeting Monday about the Senate moves to curtail Wake’s options on transit and education. Two of Bryan’s Republican colleagues said they weren’t worried about it.

Paul Coble has set the commissioners’ pace on dealing with transit: slow for the past three years, now fast.

“I think this is a great time for us to start working on this,” Coble said Monday.

‘Wait and see’

But he said it was premature to express an opinion on the legislative effort to undermine transit options.

“I’m not going to get engaged in talking about a hypothetical that is being debated in the Senate,” Coble said after the meeting. “I’m not going to get excited about it until we see what they do.”

Phil Matthews, the commissioners’ chairman, nodded his head with Coble. “I’m pretty much the same on that,” Matthew said. “Wait and see.”

Commissioner Caroline Sullivan, a Democrat, was glad to hear that the county will get moving on transit.

“I’m just delighted to hear that we’re talking about it again, after not talking about it,” Sullivan said.

It was an apparent coincidence that the commissioners were talking about a possible transit tax Monday a few hours before the senators were set to talk about limiting that possibility.

But there were other questions raised about politics and timing.

Along with a possible October 2015 referendum, there is a general election scheduled this November – when the four Republican commissioners will face Democratic challengers. Three of those Democrats attended the meeting, and they offered cynical explanations for the commissioners’ sudden burst of action.

“They’ve been doing nothing,” said Democrat Sig Hutchinson, who hopes to unseat Bryan. “Now, 100 days out from an election, they want to talk about it. And it’s going to disappear like the summer snow as soon as the election is over.”

Asked if that meant he plans to squelch any transit talk after his hoped-for victory in November, Hutchinson hastened to revise his remarks.

“If they get re-elected, this is going to be disappearing like the summer snow, as soon as the election is over,” Hutchinson said.

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