Orange County Board Considers Transit Tax

April 22--CHAPEL HILL -- Will voters in Orange County be willing to pay a half-cent sales tax to support a regional transit system that would include light rail and an expanded bus system?

Voters may have the opportunity to vote on the issue as early as November if the Orange County Board of Commissioners votes to put the tax referendum on November's ballot. They hope to make that decision by late June.

There is still plenty of work to be done before a referendum could become a reality.

The transit plan is complex, with Orange, Durham and Wake counties working on individual plans and working together on a regional plan that provides the connections between each county.

In Orange County, the plan calls for a light-rail system that would have a stop at UNC. The train would travel to Alston Avenue in Durham, with stops including Duke University and N.C. Central University.

Recently representatives from Orange County have been working closely with Durham delegates to try to finalize their individual plans and the connections between them.

To help finance the light rail and expanded bus system, the original plan called for each of the three counties to put a one-half cent sales tax on their ballots at the same time. But Wake County has announced that the earliest it could get the referendum on its ballot would be May 2012, so Orange County officials are trying to determine whether it can complete its plan, approve it and find out whether its residents would support the plan in time for the November election.

"There's just a lot of things to look at," said Bernadette Pelissier, chairwoman of the Orange County Board of Commissioners.

The commissioners hope to decide whether to put the half-cent sales tax on the November ballot before they start their summer break near the end of June, Pelissier said.

A quarter-cent sales tax that would benefit economic development and education is already scheduled to be on the ballot.

Neither tax would apply to groceries, prescription medicine or gasoline.

Right now, those working on the plan are trying to meet tight deadlines, and it's difficult to find time for any more meetings, said Craig Benedict, planning director for Orange County.

At a recent meeting of the Orange County Board of Commissioners, the commissioners discussed whether the plan would be ready and whether they would put it on the ballot.

"If it does not serve the rural population in any way, we can not sell it," Pelissier said.

Another possibility for raising funds to pay for the transit plan is to raise vehicle registration fees by $3 to cover inflation costs of a $5 Triangle Transit tax established in the 1990s and add an additional $7 county fee to support new and existing transit service.

"That is something you don't have to put on the ballot," Pelissier said. "We can raise the registration fee anytime we like. It doesn't have to be connected with the one-half cent tax."

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