CHAPEL HILL- Triangle Transit General Manager David King told county commissioners on Tuesday that plans to implement new bus services in Orange County and build a light rail line to Durham are well underway.
“The biggest piece of the entire package is, of course, the light rail,” said King. “We are working on planning that not unlike if we were planning a major freeway.”
Orange County’s half-cent sales tax for transit was levied last month, but the first revenues won’t be disbursed until July. Triangle Transit staffers estimate that in the first year taxes and fees will generate $7.3 million dollars in Orange County. Half of that will go towards planning for light rail, slightly less than half will go into a reserve fund, and 10 percent will be used to fund bus services.
But access to state and federal funding is less certain.
Despite rushing to submit an application for federal funding last September, King says Triangle Transit now needs to reapply due to a change in the grant criteria that mandates more environmental study of the light rail route.
“Once you enter what everybody calls the federal pipeline, you’ve got two years- 24 months to complete the environmental part of the work,” said King. “The clock starts sticking as soon as they admit you into the pipeline. We feel like we’ve got maybe 26 or 28 months of work that can’t be crammed into 24. We certainly don’t want to take that risk since that is a major metric.”
There are also questions being raised about the impact of the state budget on the plan. The draft Senate version could make it harder for towns and counties to access funding for transit projects like light rail.
Twenty-five percent of the funding needed for the light rail line is slated to come from the state; fifty percent from the federal government.
On a local level, Triangle Transit officials said expanded bus service funded by the plan would likely start next year with added trips on a route from UNC to Southpoint Mall.
Transit planners are also eyeing a Mebane-to-Durham express route in the near future. Earl McKee and Renee Price represent the unincorporated areas of the county, which solidly rejected the transit tax in the 2012 election. Both pressed Triangle Transit officials for assurances that rural residents would be consulted on where new routes should run in central and northern Orange County.
“With this paltry amount of $736,000, out of about $7 million, for bus service, there’s no way we can do two routes on this. There’s no way,” said Earl McKee. “So what I want to make sure is, yes, we need data-driven decisions, but that is not the only factor. Service to the citizens that are paying for this must have a priority.”
With that in mind, officials are planning outreach activities throughout the summer to talk to rural residents about where new bus routes should go. They’ll update county commissioners on those efforts sometime this fall.