NC: Wake GOP Warms to Transit as NC Senate Chills

July 25--RALEIGH -- Just as state Senate GOP leaders start pushing legislation that could make it hard for Wake County to get moving on a big transit plan, Wake GOP leaders say they finally are ready to get moving on a big transit plan.

Meanwhile Garner leaders hope progress on transit is real, and the county commissioners race between Garner's Phil Matthews and challenger Matt Calabria appears to hinge on the issue.

The Republican-led county commissioners took transit out of cold storage Monday with a pledge to launch a new, fast study of bus and rail transit improvement options for Wake County. They laid out a brisk timetable for asking questions and getting answers in time to decide by next summer whether to put a transit plan -- and a half-cent sales tax to help pay for it -- on the October 2015 referendum ballot.

"We're ready," County Manager Jim Hartmann told the commissioners. "This is where we're going to start moving a little bit at warp speed."

The commissioners hope by early September to hire a consultant who will coordinate efforts to freshen up a county transit plan that was received and tabled by commissioners in 2011. Hartmann, who brought transit experience from Virginia and Florida when he came to Wake this spring, will oversee the new study.

"Everybody there, different clubs and groups pushing transit agreed that this was a good step, which I'd say it was," said Matthews, the commissioners chair facing election and who along with other GOP Commissioners have been cautions with transit since a 2011 report and skeptical of rail in particular.

Meanwhile, the Senate Finance Committee met Monday afternoon to consider a bill that would restrict the county's sales tax options. Counties would be limited to local sales taxes totaling 2.5 percent. Wake now has a 2 percent local sales tax and is allowed under current law to raise it to 2.75 percent -- so this would reduce Wake's revenue options. Wednesday the Senate gave the bill initial approval.

If this bill became law, it could force Wake to choose between a prospective half-cent tax for transit and a quarter-cent to boost teacher salaries, as has been suggested by some commissioners. Revised options aired in the Senate committee Monday would also let Wake and other counties add a quarter-cent tax for transit and a quarter-cent for education, or replace one of those with a quarter-cent for general purpose needs.

"Ultimately we do prefer to have a say on how we spend our tax dollars," Matthews said. "I don't understand the logic behind that."

'Problematic legislation'

Political and business leaders said that if the General Assembly forces county officials to choose between transit and education, transit will lose.

"That's problematic legislation for transit," County Commissioner Joe Bryan, a Republican, said after Monday's meeting. "You want local control. You want local options. If I have to choose between education and transportation, I think most county commissioners are going to choose education."

Bryan and Harvey Schmitt, president of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, said they have let local legislators know their concerns about the Senate bill.

"If we have to wait for the state to solve all our problems, we'll wait a long time," Schmitt said. "We need some tools to do it ourselves."

Paul Coble has set the commissioners' pace on dealing with transit: slow for the past three years, now fast.

"I think this is a great time for us to start working on this," Coble said Monday.

But he said it was premature to express an opinion on the legislative effort to undermine transit options.

"I'm not going to get engaged in talking about a hypothetical that is being debated in the Senate," Coble said after the meeting. "I'm not going to get excited about it until we see what they do."

Explaining the turnaround

Commissioner Caroline Sullivan, a Democrat, was glad to hear that the county will get moving on transit.

"I'm just delighted to hear that we're talking about it again, after not talking about it," Sullivan said.

It was an apparent coincidence that the commissioners were talking about a possible transit tax Monday a few hours before the senators were set to talk about limiting that possibility.

But there were other questions raised about politics and timing.

Along with a possible October 2015 referendum, there is a general election scheduled this November -- when the four Republican commissioners will face Democratic challengers. Three of those Democrats attended the meeting, and they offered cynical explanations for the commissioners' sudden burst of action.

Matt Calabria is challenging for Phil Matthews' seat and has substantially out-raised the Garner Republican thus far. He doubted that commissioners had braked on moving forward with transit for three years only to hit the gas months before an election.

"I think most observers do not simply think the timing is coincidental," the Fuquay-Varina attorney said. "I'm glad we're moving forward with the issue but forward motion was long overdue."

Matthews denied political timing, arguing that other more pressing issues such as hiring the new county manager, the school bond referendum, and other issues had pushed it to the back burner. Now, he said, "we just want to get the wheels moving."

In Garner, the local leaders want progress, on rail in particular since the 2011 plan puts two stops in Garner. The latest commissioners' effort calls for municipalities to have a seat at the table and possibly some money in the game. Cities from Morrisville to Cary to Raleigh to Garner have advocated for the proposed commuter rail line on the path of existing tracks linking Wake County cities as well as Durham and Chapel Hill. Orange and Durham counties have already approved funding.

Garner's downtown development efforts, which have seen $4 million in public and private investment, could see particularly significant impact with an approved rail line. Developers have interest in an area with a walkable public transit option running through Raleigh and Research Triangle Park up to Durham.

"We've actually got folks that have looked at investing in property in the downtown plan calling back and going, 'Did I remember you correctly saying there was a train station planned for downtown Garner?'" said Garner Revitalization Association executive director John Hodges. "We're getting folks calling back and saying 'when's that train station going to happen?"

Siceloff: 919-829-4527 or Twitter: @Road_Worrier

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