When I joined the Board of County Commissioners six years ago the planning for the future of public transportation in Orange County was a topic of intense conversation.
Over the next couple of years we looked at a proposal that focused on a fixed rail system between two of the major universities in our area with a few extra stations in the city of Durham stopping just short of NCCU. At that time I objected to the exclusion of service to NCCU and the adjacent Durham Tech campus.
Although there were provisions for more bus hours, I felt that the dedication of $400 million from Durham and Orange counties for a (then) $1.6 BILLION light rail system would cripple expansion of local transportation systems which were far from adequate. From that point on I opposed the light rail component as well as a half-cent sales tax proposal to be placed on the ballot. I lost those arguments. The voters approved the sales tax increase, and I resigned myself to the reality that the transportation plan would be implemented with light rail as the centerpiece.
Imagine my surprise when notified on Nov. 11, only four days before an update from Go Triangle, that many of the things that I had warned about were in fact happening.
The financial plan for light rail is in a state of collapse, and only a huge infusion of additional county monies can save it. The details, as presented Nov. 15 and 17 by Go Triangle, include information that projected cost is now up to $1.87 BILLION; and the counties’ share up from 25 percent to 40 percent, which in this category alone represents a staggering $254 million increase in real dollars. Using their figures Orange and Durham counties are being asked to cover $175 million of this gap.
The presentations did not mention this funding gap until I specifically asked about it. Instead the focus was on a change to the way the federal funds are allocated.
Embedded in the power point is a chart that projects where the funding sources will be found. The original financial plan calls for a split of 77 percent local funding from Durham County and 23 percent local funding from Orange County to support light rail. This means that Orange County will be responsible for an extra $40 million or $4 million per year for the next 10 years above and beyond what we have already committed. Our board is being asked to consider a “letter of intent” on Dec. 5 to provide funding to cover this gap. My question is: what do we cut in order to accommodate this additional expense?
These financial changes trigger a “material change” clause in the original agreement which should be addressed before any “letter of intent” is issued. At the same time that this “material change” conversation is occurring, Orange County must engage with our residents to discuss possible internal funding changes that may be brought on by this additional $4 million allocation.
A conversation must also occur about the feasibility of a dedicated 3 cent property tax-rate increase for 10 years to be directed to Go Triangle for light rail in addition to the possible 4 to 5 cent increase that may be needed to pay for the recently passed bonds as well as other possible property tax increases due to unseen needs. When these are added to additional fees for recycling and the as yet unknown impact of the reevaluation, Orange County may be for a rough ride for a long time.
We must have goals and look to the future, but is that future better if we fail to listen to the voices urging caution and ultimately force out those that can no longer afford to live in Orange County. Dec. 5 is an opportunity to express your opinion. Take advantage of it.
Earl McKee is the chair of the Orange County Board of Commissioners.