As the Wake County commissioners move toward a vote in May or June on whether to put a transit tax on the November ballot, Knightdale Republican Joe Bryan could turn out to be the swing vote.
Bryan says Wake voters have the right to decide whether to levy a half-cent local sales tax to pay for transit investments, but he hasn’t figured out whether 2012 should be the year for them to vote on it.
By all appearances, he is agonizing over his decision.
Bryan turned out in January for a visit by Peter Rogoff, the federal transit administrator, who offered encouraging words about a Triangle proposal to beef up bus service and build light rail and commuter train lines.
And Bryan was the only member of the Wake board last week who found time to sit in on dueling presentations about the Wake County portion of the regional transit plan, at a lunchtime gathering sponsored by a local civic group, the Triangle Community Coalition.
David Hartgen, a retired UNC-Charlotte professor hired by the anti-transit John Locke Foundation, reiterated his prediction that buses and trains would cost far more and attract far fewer riders than advertised. David King, the Triangle Transit general manager, and Wake County Manager David Cooke offered rebuttals and reaffirmed what they called conservative forecasts for ridership and other benefits.
There were a few pointed exchanges, but it wasn’t quite as serious as a debate. Cooke and King kept straight faces when they made a light-hearted reference to a recent objection by Paul Coble, the Wake commissioners’ chairman, that they had produced merely a “concept” for transit service, not a full-fledged plan.
“We have spent an awful lot of time developing this … ,” King began, and then he looked to Cooke as if for reassurance. “Can we call it a plan, or a concept?”
“It’s a plan,” Cooke said, with nary a wink passed between them.
Afterward, Bryan said he’ll need to hear more. He’ll be influenced by responses from each of Wake’s 12 municipal governments, and by polls. He cited the sour economy and a variety of needs that will compete for the county’s fiscal priority list.
“We’ve been given the authority by the legislature for the public to decide, and at some point I’m going to be willing for the public to decide. It’s the public’s decision.
“But we still have to have a completely vetted plan and have all the data out there. And these issues that are raised, they need to be researched so we can have a better plan,” Bryan said.
“Now whether that vote is this year or a future year, that’s still in play.”
Polls will make a difference, he said. If they show a public closely divided on the transit tax, Bryan will be less inclined to push for a referendum.
“I’d like to have some clear direction from our community. If our polling data says we’re 52-48 whichever way it is, I’m not going to put the community through that,” he said.
Then he noted that he is only one of seven county commissioners -- and the only one who attended last week’s panel discussion. His three Republican and three Democratic colleagues are seen as evenly divided, with Democrats leaning in favor and Republicans leaning against the transit sales tax.
“I’m still open-minded, but it’s got a ways to go. I’m here at the meeting, right? Either they already know which way they’re going to go or, well, I’m still trying to gather as much information as possible to make the best decision for our community,” Bryan said.
“Eventually, it will be the community’s decision, as it should be.”