More Sales Tax, Less Grant Money For OC Bus And Rail Plan

HILLSBOROUGH- In their 2013 report to the board, Triangle Transit officials offered Orange County Commissioners both good news and bad regarding funding for the Orange County Bus and Rail Plan.

John Tallmadge is Triangle Transit’s director of regional services development. He told the Board on Tuesday that sales tax revenues are up, but state and federal funding is down.

“We’re expecting less federal and state dollars to provide these services that are promised in the plan and the projects that are promised in the plan, and that is offset by better actual receipt of sales tax revenues,” said Tallmadge.

The bus and rail plan was adopted in 2012 after voters approved a half-cent sales tax to help fund the plan. Transit planners originally estimated the sales tax would generate $5 million in 2014, but they’ve since revised that estimate up to $6.2 million.

Orange County Interim Manager Mike Talbert said that’s because the economy has bounced back following the Great Recession of 2008.

“We did do these original estimates coming out of the Great Recession and we were very cautious on those estimates,” said Talbert. “From what we know today, that $6 million dollar number on an annual basis is fairly realistic with what we anticipate to happen in the next few years.”

Other sources of transit funding are less certain. The bus and rail plan calls for the expansion of bus service throughout Orange County during the next five years, but Tallmadge said both the state and federal funding models for new buses and park and ride lots have changed substantially in the past 18 months.

The original plan relied on federal grant money to cover 80 percent of the cost to purchase new vehicles. Triangle Transit now estimates that will drop to 30 percent. State money, which was anticipated to provide 10 percent matching funds, is expected to be cut in half. Tallmadge said transit planners hope to continue with the bus service expansion by relying more on local sales tax dollars than grant money.

“We know we’re not going to have the grant funds to do everything we thought we were going to do, but now we have a more optimistic forecast of how much sales tax we’re going to use,” said Tallmadge. “The first thing we should do with that is make the plan whole so that we can deliver what we promised.”

Commissioner Earl McKee questioned the revised financial projections, saying he’s not comfortable with the moving targets in the plan’s funding model. Triangle Transit General Manager David King replied that the financial projections are undergoing constant scrutiny and revision.

“We budget one year at a time, and if we err on the liberal side and end up in the hole, we correct every year for that mistake,” said King. “It’s a very dynamic process and I think the early results are quite good.”

Further, King stressed that none of this is expected to impact planning for either the Hillsborough train station or the 17-mile Durham-to-Orange light rail line included in the transit plan.

The light rail project has been submitted to the Federal Transit Administration for permission to begin environmental impact studies. King said a reply is expected in the next 10 days.

Meanwhile, Triangle Transit and Orange Public Transit are currently developing a plan for new rural bus routes which should be implemented in the fall.

TTA: OC Transit Plan Off To A Good Start

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.