Local Politics

Durham County residents first to vote on proposed transit tax

Posted November 4, 2011

— 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.

13 Comments

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  • 1911A1 Nov 9, 9:14 a.m.

    I'm glad I live close to the county line.

  • Its me again Nov 4, 7:51 p.m.

    for those who support a rail system do you take a bus now? how about those cold/hot days will you be willing to walk from the station to work/shopping and home? This isn't NYC and it won't support itself so if it's approved get ready for more taxes to follow.By the way WHAT DOES GOVT DO THAT SAVES ANYONE MONEY!!!!

  • westernwake1 Nov 4, 7:46 p.m.

    Durham can not even support a bus system that has a greater occupancy than one user per bus trip on average. The bus service is grossly under-utilized. How can anyone logically think that a tax should be put in place to raise more money for bus and rail - when the busses are not even full today.

    This has the flavor of a huge give-away to political insiders for an unneeded boon-doogle. Vote No!

  • cyrasiane Nov 4, 7:34 p.m.

    "Hopefully this tax does not effect rural residents who have no need of the commuter rail."

    quaten, I'm afraid it will if these taxes are passed. If you live in Durham County, even northern Durham County, you will be taxed.

  • cyrasiane Nov 4, 7:32 p.m.

    I voted early and voted NO on both taxes. If local and state government would use their existing funds more efficiently, there would be no need to add yet ANOTHER tax to the taxes we already pay. There is so much waste in our local and state government, it's ridiculous. If you read the "education tax" descriptor on the actual ballot for Durham County, nowhere does it say that the funds will be used for education. Which means that the funds can be used for ANYTHING the county desires. Durham will be the highest taxed county in the state of North Carolina if these taxes are passed. And don't kid yourself that property taxes in Durham won't go up if these taxes are passed. They will for sure, so people lucky enough to own a house will be paying additional property tax AND more in sales taxes. A double whammy. ENOUGH ALREADY WITH THE TAXES! Where the heck does this end, people? It can start with you, AT THE BALLOT BOX, by voting NO on these two unnecessary taxes!

  • quaten Nov 4, 7:28 p.m.

    Hopefully this tax does not effect rural residents who have no need of the commuter rail.

  • freesebrandon Nov 4, 7:14 p.m.

    Im a frequent user of public transportation and think that a commuter rail is just what this region needs. look at how popular the triangle transit buses are. this will increase the appeal for more businesses to more to this region, hence creating more jobs. I will gladly take a tax increase knowing i will drive less and create new jobs.

  • Just the facts mam Nov 4, 7:03 p.m.

    I will vote NO...

  • fayncmike Nov 4, 6:57 p.m.

    Anything that gets individuals out of huge gas guzzling motor vehicles and into mass transit is welcome. It's ridiculous for anyone to drive those dinosaurs when mass transit is available. I only wish we had decent bus and light train transit available in Fayetteville. I'd sell my car in a heartbeat.

  • commonsensical Nov 4, 6:53 p.m.

    Public transit should be self-supporting. If ridership can't support the system, then it shouldn't be built.

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