We Need a Better Plan for Transit. Vote "No"
There’s a 1/2 cent sales tax referendum on November’s ballot. It will be used to fund a 25-year, $660 million plan for light rail and other transit in Orange County. Separately, the commissioners and Triangle Transit Authority (TTA) will add $10 to the annual vehicle registration fees. If the tax passes and the fees are added, sales taxes increase from 7 to 7 1/2 percent; vehicle fees increase from $33 to $43 per year.
A vote “for” the tax authorizes the BoCC to levy the tax, and TTA to proceed with the plans as written. A vote “against” the tax indicates that a better plan is needed. If voters oppose the tax, a new referendum can be brought forward on a later ballot.
TTA’s plan was originally developed for the Triangle region, but Wake County and RTP (the major population, commuter and congestion centers) are not participating. Durham supports the plan – which provides light rail through their downtown and targeted development areas. Orange County’s plan completes Durham’s rail line but ignores changing demographics, accelerating growth in Chatham and Mebane, and emerging transit corridors along 15-501, Carolina North, and in the county.
I’m voting against the tax because I believe we need a better plan – one that provides flexible and reliable transit system that fits the area’s changing density and commuter priorities, and motivates citizens to leave our cars at home.
What’s in the plan
Four miles of light rail consumes 70% of Orange County’s $660 million transit budget. The remaining funds provide bus rapid transit, (BRT), park and rides, and a small increase in bus service.
The plan covers new service only. The sales tax cannot be used for existing bus service from CHT, TTA or Orange Public Transit. In response to recent pressure from Chapel Hill, most of the vehicle fee ($22 million) will go toward CHT’s current operations (no expansion). TTA has not announced what services will be cut to accommodate this change or how it will impact the matching grant fund.
The plan includes:
- A fixed 4 mile light rail segment from UNC hospital along NC54 East to Duke Medical Center and Alston Ave in Durham. The entire Durham/Orange line is 17 miles and will cost $1.4 billion. The 4 mile Chapel Hill portion is $477 million. Rail service would begin in 2026.
- A 2.5 mile BRT segment along MLK Blvd from I-40 to Estes Road at a cost of $24.5 million. Annual operating expenses are not included in the plan.
- An increase of 34,000 bus hours over 5 years, or 7,000 hours per year; 6,000 hours more in years 6-20). Added to a base of 200,000 hours per year, that’s 3-4% annual increase. The additional hours will help create weekend service and keep the buses running when UNC is on recess. A part-time, express bus to Mebane will be added. The bus funding ($131 million over 22 years or less than 20%) includes costs to build park and ride lots and transport to the train station.
- An Amtrak Train Station in Hillsborough ($8.9 million) that’s not connected to any other service features in the plan
The new tax does not provide service between Chapel Hill to RTP, RDU airport or Raleigh, either to or from. If Wake were to adopt the plan, commuter rail to Durham would be added using existing infrastructure. There is no plan for rail or bus service between Wake and Orange County.
Plan Management and Funding
The plan for Orange County is estimated to cost $660 million through 2035. The sales tax, vehicle fees and the new rental car tax fund about 1/4 of the plan. Federal grants provide 1/2 of the funds; state grants provide 1/4 of the funds.
TTA manages the plan. Orange County, TTA and the Durham/Chapel Hill Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) must unanimously approve material changes to the plan or its funding. This includes revenue changes or cost overruns, or changes required if grants are not approved. UNC and CHT have no authority.
A vote “against” the transit tax is the start of a meaningful transit plan for Orange County.
For TTA’s plan, including maps,
For financial information
North Carolina’s British Queen
Here is a North Carolina history question: Which North Carolina counties were named in honor of women?
Dare, of course, in honor of Virginia Dare, the first child of English parents born in America.
Wake was named for Margaret Wake, wife of Governor William Tryon.
And then, Mecklenburg, named in honor of the wife of King George III, Charlotte, who grew up in the Mecklenburg region of Germany.
German Mecklenburg was part of the old East Germany. There was almost no connection between the two Mecklenburgs until the Wall came down.
Last month in Mirow, a small town in German Mecklenburg, important people from all over the world gathered to celebrate a “Queen Charlotte” connection that binds Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
Perhaps the most important person there was British Ambassador to Germany Simon McDonald, who reported, “I was puzzled at first to find the place teeming with Americans; until I realised they were from Charlotte, North Carolina. The delegation was headed by the Chairman of the Board of Commissioners of Mecklenburg County, and included the Deputy Mayor of Charlotte …. Charlotte, NC, was founded in 1762, the year after Charlotte became Queen. Its symbol is still Charlotte’s crown; the Deputy Mayor proudly pointed out that a crown tops Charlotte’s tallest building, the Bank of America HQ.”
What brought all these Charlotte-connected people together? In the words of the ambassador, it was “to take part in ceremonies to mark the 250th anniversary of the coronation of Queen Charlotte, the wife of King George III.”
And why was this tiny town, population about 3,500, chosen to host the event? The ambassador explained that the future queen “was born at Mirow on 19 May 1744.”
Charlotte was living in the schloss, the German word for castle or palace, in Mirow when, at age17, she departed in August, 1761 for England to marry King George.
When I first visited Princess Charlotte’s schloss in 1990, it was lovely, but in bad repair. It seemed way too small to be a real castle. But, as the ambassador explained, that was a blessing. “Its small size and intact roof saved it during the DDR [East German] time when the authorities systematically demolished princely palaces.”
After the unification of Germany, it took the heroic efforts of a group of Mirow residents and the support of wise officials of German Mecklenburg’s government to keep the schloss from being sold to private owners.
The schloss, though small, turned out to be something very special because, as the ambassador explained, its first owner, Charlotte’s grandmother, “built beautifully on a modest scale; the final touches were provided by Italian painters and sculptors …coaxed north from Berlin when Frederick the Great could not afford to pay their fees during the Seven Years War (1756-63).”
The government of German Mecklenburg, with support from the European Union, is pouring millions of euros into restoring the schloss. One special small room, by itself, will cost almost a million euros. Expected completion date: 2014.
Speaking to his fellow British citizens, the ambassador continued, “I recommend a visit in three years to see what you’re investing in as an EU taxpayer: it promises to be spectacular.”
I agree. But don’t wait. With the lovely grounds on the small castle island, a special gatehouse with a room dedicated to a partnership with North Carolina, a hotel, a marina, restaurants, and the historic church where Charlotte was baptized, all within sight of each other, and less than two hours from Berlin, Mirow cries out for a visit by North Carolinians—right now.
For British Ambassador Simon McDonald’s complete report on the events in Mirow, see
For a video of my search for Princess Charlotte see: