by Bob Geary
When last heard from (or about), the 1/2-cent sales tax for transit bill was breezing through the friendly confines of the House Transportation Committee, headed for the tougher terrain of the House Finance Committee. With the latter committee scheduled to take up the bill next Wednesday, April 15 (8:30 a.m. in Room 544 of the Legislative Office Building), Durham Mayor Bill Bell yesterday tossed a little grenade into the debate. As reported by the Herald Sun, Bell told a meeting of the DCHC (the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro transportation planning organization) that the bill should be amended to require that all three Triangle counties be on board, as it were, before any state funds could be on transit in the Triangle.
Now why, one might ask, would long-time transit proponent (and Triangle Transit board member) Bell do that?
Here's what Bell told the H-S:
... "if the state is a partner in this ... [it] needs to understand that unless all three counties have this basic funding from the half-cent sales tax, you're not going to be able to get a regional system," Bell said in an interview.
Translation: I'm afraid Durham won't pass the tax any time soon, and Wake and Orange will (or maybe, since the sale tax is so regressive, only Wake will); and the way HB 148 is written now, Wake could start to build its own light-rail line heading northeast out of downtown Raleigh toward Wake Forest ... and maybe Orange starts a little light-rail effort through Meadowmont ... and the upshot is that the west (Chapel Hill) goes west and the east (Raleigh) goes east and neither one heads for Durham, which is orphaned in the mix.
Going by what we reported last month and Ray Gronberg's H-S story (the two links above), it seems unlikely that the legislation, so carefully crafted by Democratic Rep. Deborah Ross and Republican Sen. Richard Stevens, both of Wake County, to entice their ordinarily tax-averse Wake constituencies, will be amended to suit Bell.
More likely, Bell is sounding the alarm to Durham's political leadership, notably House Finance Committee "senior chair" Paul Luebke as well as the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, that if they do to the 1/2-cent transit tax what they did last fall to the 1-cent prepared meals tax (that is, let it go to the voters, but then campaign against it and get it pummeled at the polls, as reported here and here and, finally, here), they may live to regret it.
Bell's amendment was backed by Chapel Hill Mayor Kevin Foy, according to Gronberg's story. But other Durham officials seemed dubious:
Durham City Councilman Mike Woodard, who chairs the Transportation Advisory Committee, joined state Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, in saying he didn't see a need for the amendment.
Woodard said he fears Bell's proposal could upset the coalition that's now closer than it's been in years to getting the General Assembly to authorize the Triangle's counties to call transit-tax referenda.