The Wake County commissioners have given up on the prospect of a referendum this year on a half-cent sales tax to pay for beefed-up bus and rail transit service.
Orange and Durham leaders say they still might consider holding their votes in November. But it will be May 2012, at the earliest, before Wake voters are asked to consider a transit tax hike.
Transportation planners in Wake are running out of time to map detailed bus routes and train plans that would need several levels of approval – by county commissioners and 12 town boards – before voters could be asked to pay for them.
And David Cooke, the Wake County manager, said voters might not want to consider a new transit tax when state and local governments are preparing to slash spending.
“In the public’s mind, it’s a tough sell on why – if you’re in a position to cut service or lay off employees – to have a conversation about adding a new revenue stream so you can do something new,” Cooke said.
Transit advocates across the region had hoped to see all three counties vote together this fall on whether to raise the sales tax to finance a network of better bus schedules and new rail transit lines – either rush-hour commuter trains or frequent light-rail trains, or both.
“I think there’s more power with a regional approach,” said Ellen Reckhow, a Durham County commissioner. “But depending on the climate, there might still be an appetite to move forward” in Durham and Orange counties.
Bill Bell, the Durham mayor, said, "I don't want to wait on Wake, simply because Wake says we're not going to do it until 2012."
State law authorizes voters in the three Triangle counties to pay for transit improvements by taxing themselves an additional 5 cents on every $10 sale. The counties can act together or separately if their respective boards of commissioners agree on transit service improvements and on a fiscal plan, and if they vote to hold a referendum.
Planners are mapping routes that would serve residents of each county individually and also connect the region together. Orange and Durham officials are developing plans to build up bus service on U.S. 15-501 from Durham to Chapel Hill, then build electric-powered light-rail or a bus rapid transit line between the two cities.