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Next stop for transit sales tax bill: Senate Finance Committee

This week the Senate will take up a House bill authorizing Triangle counties to pay for bus and rail transit improvements with a half-cent local sales tax. Sponsors say they have the votes to win.

The Senate Finance Committee will consider House Bill 148 at 1 p.m. Wednesday in Room 544 of the Legislative Office Building. If you can’t be there, you can listen online.

"Once the bill comes up, we have the votes," said Rep. Deborah Ross, a Raleigh Democrat and House sponsor.

The bill sets up state programs, but does not provide state funding, for railroad, aviation, ferry and transit improvements.

It gives five urban counties – Wake, Durham, Orange, Guilford, Forsyth – the option for a half-cent transit sales tax if approved by the county commissioners and by local voters in a referendum. And it gives other counties except Mecklenburg (which already has a transit sales tax) the option for a quarter-cent transit sales tax. ... [MORE]

One more day to enter SmartCommute Challenge and $2,500 drawing

Saturday is your last chance to take the SmartCommute Challenge -- a good idea on its own merits -- and enter the drawing for prices including a $2,500 check.

So far 10,433 Triangle residents have taken the challenge -- which means they pledge to experiment with some commuting mode other than driving alone to work or school. In other words: bus, vanpool, carpool, walk, bike, telecommute, did I leave anything out?

The idea behind this six-week, three-county campaign is simple and smart. Give lots of people incentives to leave the car at home and experiment with other ways of getting to work, and some of this will stick. Some people will actually change their habits.

Details are online


Bo Glenn cranks up a Durham-Orange transit booster bus

Durham lawyer Bo Glenn, who helped run a Triangle-wide study commission that developed the region's big plan for buses and trains, now is spearheading a western Triangle advocacy group to boost political prospects for regional transit.

Durham-Orange Friends of Transit has a cute nickname (DO-Transit) and a clunky web address (, where Glenn is inviting felow travelers to sign up. Glenn was a vice chairman of the Special Transit Advisory Commission, which proposed more than 300 new buses and more than 50 miles of rail transit in a new long-range regional transit plan.

DO-Transit joins Karen Rindge's Wake-centered group, Capital Area Friends of Transit, in an effort to push for legislation -- already passed by the House and now before the Senate -- authorizing a local vote for a half-cent sales tax that would pay most of the cost of that transit plan.

Local-option transit sales tax wins first House vote

In a 77-40 vote today, the House gave preliminary approval to a local-option sales tax for bus and rail transit service, after turning back a move to let some of the money be spent for roads.

“We can’t build but so many roads here,” said Rep. Mickey Michaux, a Durham Democrat. "We have to have this rail transit, particularly in those areas that are highly populated and densely populaed."

“Each community is different, and this bill empowers each community to do what is best for it,” said Rep. Deborah Ross, a Raleigh Democrat and one of the bill sponsors.

But Rep. Cary Allred, a Burlington Republican, said it was wrong to “ask working people to pay more and more” in taxes.

“I don’t think anybody in this state is ever going to ride a train on a regular basis -- unless they do not own an automobile, or gasoline prices are more than $5 a gallon,” he said.

The measure would let commissioners in three Triangle and two Triad urban counties levy a half-cent sales tax — if local voters agree — for bus and rail transit improvements. The money also could be spent on express
highway lanes for buses and carpools. ... [MORE]

Taking the SmartCommute Challenge: 1501 so far

They say virtue is its own reward, and you could argue that taking the SmartCommute Challenge is its own reward, too.

But if it isn't -- if the experience of biking or carpooling or catching the bus is not enticing enough -- there are prizes at stake. Does that sound more rewarding?

The idea behind this six-week, three-county campaign is a simple and proven one. Give lots of people incentives to leave the car at home and experiment with other ways of getting to work, and some of this will stick. Some people will actually change their habits.

This really works. Frequently when I interview some Triangle commuter reading the paper on the way to the office, it turns out that he or she first got the bus-riding bug in a previous SmartCommute campaign.

Here's how it works:

From April 15 through May 30, any employee or college student who commutes to work or campus in Wake, Durham, or Orange County can participate. To enter the Challenge, make
your online pledge that at least once before May 30 you will carpool,
vanpool, bike or walk, ride the bus, or telework (work from home).

Everyone who takes the Challenge will be entered into a drawing to win one of several PRIZES, including $2,500 cash!

That's pretty simple. The website helps you figure out how you actually can ride a bike or a bus or join a vanpool etc., and of course it talks about those prizes. The campaign started last Wednesday, and 1501 people have signed up so far at the website.

Good luck and have fun.

House Finance Committee, in 19-6 vote, climbs aboard the transit wagon

The state's roadbuilders and the Sierra Club. The N.C. Justice Center and the N.C. Chamber (of commerce). The N.C. Rural Economic Development Center and the N.C. Metropolitan Mayors Association.

These diverse groups routinely fight each other over state priorities and political issues. But they're on the same page in their support of House Bill 148: Congestion Relief / Intermodal Fund.

That's the legislation to give Triangle voters an option to tax themselves to pay for public transit expansion.

It would let Wake, Durham, Orange, Guilford and Forsyth voters authorize a half-penny sales tax, or 5 cents on every $10 sale, enough to generate about $90 million a year in the three Triangle counties. Rural counties would have a similar quarter-cent option.

"We wholeheartedly support this bill," Christie Barbee of the Carolina Asphalt Pavement Association told members of the House Finance Committee this morning. "We believe it is time for all North Carolina communities to have the tools and the revenue options necessary to address their transportation needs."

This morning the list of supporters grew longer.

Democratic Reps. Paul Luebke of Durham and Jennifer Weiss of Cary restated their opposition to the bill's emphasis on a sales tax hike -- unfair to middle- and low-income people, they said -- but joined a 19-6 majority on the House Finance Committee to endorse the bill.

“I’m not thrilled it has to come from a local option sales tax, but the writing is on the wall that for current transportation funding, the money’s not there from traditional transportation soures," Weiss said after the vote. "So we’ve got to do something.” ... [MORE]

RTP employers offer to share transit tax bill

RTP employers say they are willing to tax themselves up to $3 million a year to help build a new three-county transit system that would be funded mostly from a local sales tax hike.

The House Transportation Committee, which is scheduled Wednesday to consider transit legislation, will air two amendments aimed at blunting opposition from critics who say the sales tax would unfairly burden low-income residents.

The bill gives Triangle counties the option, if approved by voters in a referendum, to raise the local sales tax by one-half percent to help pay for a proposed plan with 300 new buses and more than 50 miles of light-rail tracks.

The proposed amendments would strengthen local efforts to provide affordable housing near rail stops and bus hubs, and give a special RTP tax district the option to levy up to 10 cents per $100 property valuation in the park, worth about $3 million a year, to support the transit project.

A majority of RTP's Owners and Tenants Association, approached by Triangle legislators, agreed in principle to the transit tax hike. The proposed amendment would authorize the RTP tax but would not require it.

"I think it's great," said Durham Mayor Bill Bell. "This puts the force of the business community behind it -- particularly RTP, and they are pretty much the focus of this regional rail system in terms of where people want to go. It's more than lip service -- they're putting their dollars behind it." ... [MORE]

Meeker pushes three-county transit

Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker gave a regional, three-county emphasis to his push for public transit today when he announced plans to run for re-election.

Meeker last year spearheaded action on a 10-year Wake County plan to beef up bus service and lay tracks for light-rail trains. That would give Wake the option to move on its own if Durham and Orange counties can't agree on priorities and funding for regional transit.

But when he cited transit as one of his top three campaign priorities today, he took the Three Musketeers approach: All for one and one for all. ... [MORE]

Meeker says economy key factor in decision to run again

Mayor Charles Meeker’s announcement this morning that he will seek a fifth term in office doesn’t exactly qualify as a bombshell. Close observers of the City Council largely expected the mayor to run again, even if he had made hints earlier this year that he was considering stepping aside.
Meeker has said he didn’t want to walk away with the city’s economy in turmoil, and although Raleigh isn’t facing a budget crisis the City Council will have to make some tough decisions over the next year or two.
The mayor said this morning that he had come to the conclusion that changing the city’s leadership during a time of economic uncertainty would not be wise.
“The economy was a major factor,” he said. “This is the right decision at this time.”
Meeker is a man who loves the details of public financing, and he surely wants to be around when the council discusses potential budget cuts and debates what projects to go ahead with and what projects to curtail.
Just look at the council’s recent discussion about water rates. Several of Meeker’s colleagues proposed the possibility of letting the public utilities department’s credit rating slip, an option that the mayor is strongly against.
Asked whether he felt obligated to run because of the economy, Meeker said the job has become more enjoyable over time, particularly now that all but one of his fellow council members are fellow Democrats.
“I enjoy being mayor,” he said.
Meeker outlined three priorities for a fifth two-year term: Preparing the city to be in a position to act once the economy improves, adopting a regional transportation plan, and moving ahead with plans to turn the Dorothea Dix Hospital campus into a park.
Two of these items, regional transit and Dix, will require Meeker to do something that is not one of his strengths: build consensus beyond the Raleigh City Council table.
Asked this morning about what kind of leadership role he would take on these issues, Meeker said whatever is necessary.
“I will be involved with it, either up front if needed, or behind the scenes, if needed,” he said.
Meeker was also asked why he hadn’t faced much opposition in recent elections for mayor.
He mentioned the time commitment required for the part-time job, and the fact that in recent years Raleigh has been declared one of the best places to live in the country by an array of groups.
The election is Oct. 6, so there’s still plenty of time for a challenger to emerge.

Transit boosters' poll boosts transit and sales tax

A new poll conducted by a pro-transit business group finds that Triangle residents are pro-transit.

The Regional Transportation Alliance, a transportation advocacy business group, says the poll shows support for transit improvements and for a proposed half cent local tax to pay for them. The group also favors the sales tax funding approach.

The poll found that 49.1 percent favored legislation, now moving through the House, that would give Triangle voters the power to approve the transit sales tax, and 42.1 percent opposed it. Asked whether they would vote to tax themselves if the half-penny tax was placed on a local referendum ballot, a larger share said yes — 52.8 percent, with 43.7 percent opposed.

The numbers for Wake County alone were less favorable on the transit sales tax. The enabling legislation was opposed by 47.8 percent to 46.2 percent of the Wake voters surveyed, while the local sales tax vote itself was supported by 50.5 percent to 46.7 percent.

Fallon Research conducted the live interview poll of 1,006 registered voters in Wake, Durham and Orange counties. The poll claims a margin of error of plus or minus 3.08%. A statistical breakdown shows that 69.3% of respondents are white, 60.5% are employed outside the home and 40.2% live in Wake County.

That means Wake is underrepresented in the Triangle total, because 69% of the residents of the three counties live in Wake. RTA also published separate results for each of the three counties.

Here are some of the answers to some of the poll questions (questions are paraphrased here): ... [MORE]

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