Here is an early look at the full version of a guest column running in Sunday's Chapel Hill News. Please tell us if you support the half-cent sales tax for mass transit at firstname.lastname@example.org or below (with your name if you'd like your comments published in the newspaper.). Thanks.
By Benjamin Haven and James Carnahan
Orange County has a clear and urgent need for the additional transit services that would be funded by the half-cent sales tax now under consideration by the County Commissioners for a fall referendum.
Whether you live in town or a rural area, we all have an obligation to create a sustainable legacy for those who will come after us – to curtail our carbon footprint, establish a resilient economy and make Orange County affordable to a diverse population. Public transit is an indispensible tool for achieving these goals.
The Piedmont is still growing at an extraordinary pace; the Triangle Region alone is expected to add more than one million people over the next 20 years [U.S. Census]. By 2030, an additional 40,000 people are projected to make their home in Orange County [NC Office of State Budget, Planning, and Management]. This growth will tax our transportation infrastructure, contributing to longer traffic delays and more carbon emissions. Already, the Triangle wastes 12.7 million gallons of fuel annually due to congestion [Texas Transportation Institute]. We can’t continue to rely on fossil fuels and sprawl-oriented development patterns, and our current transportation system is inadequate for the population boom that we face. It’s time to invest in a real transit plan to meet our current and future needs.
The added half-cent sales tax would specifically fund public transportation. The Federal Government will not kick in matching funds to get transit projects off the ground unless Orange County can prove that it is capable of raising capital to finance part of these ventures. In other words, we will not see transit improvements, including bus service expansion, a light rail line from UNC Hospitals to Downtown Durham, or a Hillsborough Intercity rail station, unless we get this tax referendum on the ballot and passed by a simple voting majority.
Durham is already on board, putting a similar referendum on the ballot and voting to fund transit last year. However, they can’t do it alone, and a potential light rail line connecting Orange County to Durham depends on us sharing in the cost. It’s time for Orange County, too, to invest in transit to support the future health of our community.
The half-cent tax will fund:
• Expanded local and regional bus service – a more immediate benefit;
• A light rail line connecting Orange and Durham Counties (currently planned to connect Alston Avenue Station in Durham to UNC Hospital in Chapel Hill;
•A Hillsborough Amtrak station for enhanced intercity travel by rail, taking advantage of service that already runs through Orange County several times a day.
These increased transit services will provide many social, economic and environmental benefits, including:
• Reduction of our dependence on fossil fuels; bus and light rail use less fuel per person than single occupancy vehicles;
• Conservation of energy and reduction of air pollution emissions: A single light rail vehicle removes 60 to 125 cars from the road;
• Economic Development such as typically occurs along fixed guideway lines. For example, the Charlotte light rail line, constructed in 2005, already has $1.45 billion in new/planned development next to its stations;
• Enhanced access to employment centers: Light rail and commuter rail transit will provide access to the Triangle’s largest employment centers that are located along the region’s most congested corridors;
• Job creation: Preliminary estimates indicate that as many as 6,400 jobs could potentially be created in the Triangle Region by light rail and commuter rail projects, and as many as 350 permanent maintenance and operations jobs;
• Preservation of open space - over the long term the light rail system will help concentrate new growth on a compact footprint along its length, reducing sprawl and conserving natural areas and farmland;
• Fostering improved public health by creating walkable urban places where people can get to essential destinations on foot and by bicycle;
• Providing transportation for those who are unable to drive for reasons of age, economic constraint, or physical disability;
• Reduction in commuting travel time and delays: According to the Triangle Regional Transit Program Alternatives Analysis, light rail would be speedier than bus travel along the proposed corridor.
Please contact your county commissioners by phone or email and tell them to put a transit tax referendum on the ballot this year. The Commissioners will be discussing this at their regular meeting May 15th.
Benjamin Haven lives in Chapel Hill. James Carnahan lives in Carrboro.