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