Road Worrier: Transit sales tax pays off for bus riders in two Triangle counties

Shoppers in Orange and Durham counties have been paying a special half-cent sales tax dedicated to bus and rail transit improvements for the past year. Now they’re starting to get something back for their money.

Triangle Transit will use some of the sales tax proceeds this summer to inaugurate Sunday service on a handful of routes in the two counties – stepping up to a seven-day schedule for the first time in its 21-year history.

Chapel Hill Transit and Durham’s DATA began spending sales-tax dollars for service expansions last fall, adding evening hours and more frequent daytime runs on several busy bus routes. They’re planning more bus upgrades this fall and next year.

“We’re trying to provide improved access to jobs, especially those with nontraditional work hours, and expand access to retail, medical and educational destinations,” said Brian Litchfield, the Chapel Hill Transit director.

And new rush-hour bus routes will be rolled out for residents of Hillsborough, Mebane, North Durham and southern Durham who work at Duke University and in downtown Durham. That will give more commuters the option to leave the car, if they have one, at home.

Some folks in Wake County might feel left out, because they don’t have a dedicated sales tax pouring money into a bank account for transit improvements. But Wake also will benefit from expanded bus service this year, thanks to funds kicked in by Triangle Transit and the Raleigh City Council.

Orange and Durham began collecting the transit sales tax in April 2013, after the tax and a related vehicle registration fee were approved first by the commissioners in both counties and then by voters, as part of long-range bus and rail investment plans. Part of the tax proceeds have been set aside for planning work on a light-rail line local leaders hope to build one day between UNC Hospitals and downtown Durham.

The Wake County commissioners have not taken action on a similar bus and rail plan drafted in 2011 by Triangle Transit planners and the former county manager, with input from Wake’s 12 town and city boards.

The Wake plan includes light rail in the distant future and a separate commuter train line from Durham through Research Triangle Park and Raleigh to Garner – a prospect that might sound appealing next year, when a $130 million Raleigh Beltline repair project is expected to start making hordes of commuters late to work every morning.

And, like the Orange and Durham plans, Wake’s 2011 plan starts out with big new investments in bus service.

The Wake transit plan is so dusty now that supporters and skeptics agree that an update is overdue. The next revision is expected to give more emphasis to bus rapid transit service, and it probably will take note of new transit-friendly dense development in the Cameron Village and North Hills neighborhoods.

As it turns out, Wake residents won’t have to wait for a sales-tax referendum to see some upgrades in bus service.

Triangle Transit is dipping into its own funds to add Saturday evening and Sunday service for its bus from Raleigh to Raleigh-Durham International Airport, which now serves an average 160 riders a day. The RDU bus stops at the Regional Transit Center in Research Triangle Park, where weekday and weekend riders from Durham and Orange routes can switch for a ride to the airport.

Sunday service just makes sense for the airport bus and other intercity routes.

“One of the most common requests we receive is for people to be able to get from community to community on Sunday,” said John Tallmadge, Triangle Transit’s commuter resources director. “And service to and from the airport becomes much more viable for vacation travelers when you have Sunday service.”

The Raleigh City Council is investing in better bus service, too, with an extra $1.4 million added to the Capital Area Transit budget for the next two years.

“The truth of the matter is, we have not done a good job as a city funding bus service,” said Mary-Ann Baldwin, a City Council member and Triangle Transit trustee. “Our decision last year to take this money from the general fund showed that we as a city are committed to this.”

Starting June 1, Capital Area Transit will run buses every 15 minutes for Raleigh’s two busiest routes along Capital Boulevard and New Bern Avenue. New Sunday service will be added to the Crabtree and Northclift routes, and more changes are planned.

Wake’s original transit plan included more Sunday service on Triangle Transit routes, as well as new express bus routes linking Raleigh to outlying towns.

Baldwin would like to see the county commissioners approve a transit plan and let county voters decide on a possible half-cent sales tax in 2015. She spoke by phone Monday from Indianapolis, where Wake political and business leaders were learning about familiar challenges faced by a city twice Raleigh’s size.

“They’re struggling with the same issues we are,” Baldwin said. “I think for midsize cities that want to become great cities, transit options are seen as a very necessary stepping stone.”

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer