Wake County residents will decide in November whether to increase the local sales tax by a half-cent to pay for what county leaders are calling a transformational transit plan that would connect the Triangle with more buses and trains.
The Wake County Board of Commissioners on Monday voted unanimously to adopt a $2.3 billion plan to beef up bus service across the county and bring commuter trains to the area by 2027.
The plan, which commissioners called historic, was long awaited by transit advocates who see it as a way to reduce traffic congestion and connect the Triangle’s focal points such as N.C. State University, Research Triangle Park, Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill.
To pay for it, commissioners agreed to put a half-cent sales tax referendum on the Nov. 8 ballot. Wake residents now pay a 6.75-cent sales tax per dollar; the state collects 4.75 cents of that, and the county gets 2 cents.
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If voters approve the tax increase, it would account for about $1 billion of the project’s cost in the first decade. A new vehicle registration fee and federal funds would cover the remaining $1.3 billion.
If voters reject the tax, the transit plan could die on the shelf. On Monday, the Democrat-run Board of Commissioners exuded optimism.
County leaders for years have talked about improving local transit options but didn’t pursue a defined plan until Democrats gained control of the board in 2014.
Republicans who previously controlled the board argued, among other things, that Wake doesn’t have enough population density to warrant a large transit investment. Wake’s population last year reached 1 million, and it is estimated to be growing by about 60 people a day.
The Democrats’ election sweep about 18 months ago was a vote of confidence by taxpayers, said commissioner Jessica Holmes.
“The fact that four new commissioners were elected, running on a platform of providing transit and providing for our schools, I think that vote in and of itself in November of 2014 is indicative of Wake County’s support for transit,” Holmes said.
Voters in Durham and Orange counties have approved a half-cent sales tax increase to fund added transit in their corners of the Triangle. Plans in Durham and Orange call for light rail, while Wake is seeking slower commuter rail.
Still, supporters of Wake’s plan on Monday said increased public transportation will reduce stress, increase productivity and improve the health of riders while protecting the environment by alleviating suburban sprawl.
The plan calls for new bus routes and more buses on existing routes, giving riders more frequent service. Planners say bus system improvements, coupled with commuter rail, could quadruple transit ridership in Wake County over the next decade.
The plan includes 20 miles of bus rapid transit service, known as BRT. Unlike traditional bus systems, BRT often provides faster service than other automobile traffic by running in dedicated lanes and getting special priority at traffic signals. BRT would run every 15 minutes on 20 miles of Capital and Western boulevards, New Bern Avenue and South Wilmington Street.
Standard buses would travel another 63 miles of Raleigh streets at 15-minute intervals, in many cases quadrupling the current service levels.
Wake, as part of the plan, also aims to partner with Durham County to launch 37 miles of rush-hour commuter trains from eastern Wake through Raleigh, Cary, Morrisville, Research Triangle Park and someday into Durham. Riders could take a train to Morrisville and hop on a bus to Raleigh-Durham International Airport.
Transit advocates nearly filled the board chambers inside the Wake County Justice Center on Monday to applaud commissioners for the move. Among them were representatives from several corporate and nonprofit groups including Quintiles, Cisco, WakeUP Wake County, the Downtown Raleigh Alliance, the Sierra Club, the Southern Environmental Law Center and Advocates for Health in Action.
Two speakers, however, said the plan fails to do enough for the people who need transit the most.
“I would encourage you to go down to Southeast Raleigh ... and speak to individuals and ask them what they’ll get out of this,” said Joey Stansbury, a Raleigh resident who said he’s also concerned about the county’s debt.
Octavia Rainey, an activist from Southeast Raleigh, said the plan is geared to help young people more than poor black people who need affordable transportation.
“This plan is top up, not bottom up,” she said. “Black people are always left behind.”
Commissioners Chairman James West of Raleigh, who is black, said he hopes to address those concerns in the coming months.
“We’ve got a lot of time left to hopefully improve the plan,” West said. “There are some gaps and disparities that we can work on.”