Durham, N.C. — A proposed half-cent local sales tax designed to fund a regional transit system in the Triangle will face its first test next Tuesday in Durham County, where it appears on the ballot for the first time.
Transit boosters say the sales tax, if approved in Durham, Wake and Orange counties, would fund development of a commuter rail system that would run from Durham through Research Triangle Park, Cary and downtown Raleigh to Garner. It also would create a light-rail system between downtown Durham and UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill.
"We feel that we have an excellent plan, and it's a plan that we can bring forward in logical steps," Durham County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow said.
The ballot referendum, along with proposed quarter-cent sales tax increases for education in Orange and Durham counties, has brought criticism from the John Locke Foundation. The conservative group said city and county governments in the two counties, as well as Durham Public Schools, are improperly advocating for the tax increases.
The Orange County Board of Commissioners allocated up to $50,000 for what it calls a public education campaign, and county attorney John Roberts called the allegations of illegal promotion of the initiative misleading.
"Local governments are authorized by law to spend public tax dollars to educate voters on particular issues," Roberts said. "At no time has Orange County or any county employee spent or authorized the expenditure of public tax dollars advocating the passage of the referendum."
Durham County officials said they likewise used $33,800 to produce a question-and-answer brochure and a 60-second radio educational announcement about the two taxes. Durham city and school officials said they also simply educated voters about the taxes and didn't advocate for passage of either.
The proposed transit tax wouldn't apply to sales of food, prescription drugs, utilities, motor vehicles or gas, but some Durham residents say any tax increase is too much.
"All that's going to do is drive shoppers across the county lines," said Theodore Hicks, chairman of the Durham County Republican Party. "It's going to translate into lower sales. It's going to translate into (fewer) jobs."
Hicks said he worries that the transit system won't be used, and he's concerned about what happens if Wake and Orange counties don't follow suit with a similar tax or if state and federal funding for the system doesn't materialize.
"Durham taxpayers are just going to get stuck footing an even higher bill," he said. "We don't believe transit is a viable solution in this area."
Reckhow said some parts of the project could be done without state and federal dollars, adding that the local sales tax wouldn't be implemented right away.
"We would revisit our plan and decide what to do," she said. "We will not be assessing the new sales tax until we see what our neighbors are doing."
Reckhow said the transit system would drive development, as people try to live and work near train stations.
Part of the Durham tax revenue would be used to expand the local bus system, but Hicks questions whether that is needed.
"How can we say we need to expand bus services when the current services are so grossly underutilized?" he said.
Reckhow said some bus routes are so popular that they are standing-room only.