Sales tax revenues would help fund new commuter rail system in Wake County, N.C.

DALLAS -- Voters in Wake County, N.C., will decide in November whether to approve a 0.5% increase in the local sales tax to fund a 10-year, $2.39 billion transit plan to reduce highway congestion in the Raleigh area.

The Wake County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously Monday night to put the proposed tax hike on the Nov. 8 ballot. If approved, the increase would bring the total sales tax in the county to 7.25%, including the state's current 4% tax and the local tax, which is currently 2.75%.

The WakeGO transit proposal includes an expansion of Raleigh's municipal bus fleet to provide more frequent service, 20 miles of dedicated rapid bus lanes, and a 37-mile commuter rail line. 

The proposal's price tag includes $1.6 billion of capital projects and $654 million of operational expenses.

The higher sales tax is expected to generate $1 billion for the project over 10 years.  The transit plan would be not pursued if voters reject the tax increase.

Local revenues would provide 48% of the transit system's cost, with federal sources expected to provide 27%.

Dedicated local revenues would also include the county's existing car rental tax and a $10 increase in the annual vehicle registration fee.

Debt supported by the increased tax revenues would account for up to 20% of the total cost, according to the county. Fare revenues are expected to provide 4% of the costs, while state funding is estimated at only 1%.

The roads in the Raleigh area are becoming more congested as the population grows in the Research Triangle area anchored by Duke University, the University of North Carolina, and North Carolina State University, said county commissioner Matt Calabria.

"Wake County is growing extremely quickly. We're adding 63 people a day," he said. "We know traffic is increasing and we're going to face challenges associated with growth. This is the best thing we can do to stave off that congestion."

The county's population reached 1 million in 2015. Wake County is the second-largest county in North Carolina and the ninth-fastest growing county in the U.S., according to the Census Bureau.

Extensive and reliable transit will be a key factor in attracting new high-tech businesses to the region, Calabria said.

"We know cutting-edge businesses and cutting-edge workers really look for a good public transportation system in their modern cities," he said.

The election to the county commission of four new pro-transit members 18 months ago is a favorable sign for passage of the tax proposal in November, said county commissioner Jessica Holmes.

"The fact that four new commissioners were elected, running on a platform of providing transit and providing for our schools, I think that vote in and of itself in November of 2014 is indicative of Wake County's support for transit," she said.

Voters in nearby Durham and Orange counties have approved a 0.5% increase in their local sales taxes to finance light-rail systems. The Wake County proposal is for commuter rail, which is slower, that would share existing railroad tracks with freight trains and Amtrak passenger service.

Wake County and Durham County plan to cooperate in building the rail line, which would stretch from eastern Wake County to the city of Durham, with stops in downtown Raleigh, the N.C. State campus, and Research Triangle Park.

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