BRADENTON, Fla. – Big-ticket transit funding plans are riding on the outcome of ballots voters will cast in densely populated Wake County, N.C., and Atlanta in November.
In Wake County, where early voting starts Thursday, voters are being asked to approve a local half-cent sales tax as part of a $5.1 billion, 20-year transit plan that includes a start-up commuter rail system.
In Atlanta, voters also are being asked to weigh in on a half-cent sales tax increase to support a $6.11 billion capital program for the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority that would add high capacity rail and other improvements to the existing system.
Those initiatives are among more than 30 referendums around the country on the Nov. 8 ballot proposing a total of $200 billion in public transit funding measures, according to the American Public Transportation Association.
"I think this is transformational," said Wake County Commissioner Sig Hutchinson, a vocal supporter of his county's proposed tax increase and the transit plan. "I don't really believe that we have a functional transit system now."
In the middle of the successful and job-rich Research Triangle Park, and home to three universities, Wake County already has more than 1 million residents and experiences an influx of 23,000 annually.
There is no dedicated bus rapid transit system or commuter rail line, but the November referendum lays the foundation for adding them.
Proponents supporting the increased tax in Wake County say it will raise $2.4 billion over the first 10 years, the period it will take to implement the plan.
The sales tax is the cornerstone of financing the broader transportation program estimated to cost $5.1 billion over a 20-year planning horizon, according to transit consultants Jarrett Walker and Kimley-Horn.
The transit plan would also be supported by increased vehicle registration fees and a vehicle rental tax, in addition to bus and train farebox revenue and local, state and federal funds, all outlined in the Wake County Transit Plan prepared by the consultants.
An estimated $721.75 million of bonds would be issued to support the new transit system, the plan says.
More than 70 businesses and organizations have endorsed the program, including the Southern Environmental Law Center, which has been at odds with North Carolina over some state-sponsored road projects in the past.
"Wake County is one of the fastest growing areas in the nation and it is essential that we plan for this growth," said SELC attorney Kym Hunter. "This expansive public transit system will help guide smart land-use planning decisions and ensure that Wake County residents have transportation options beyond the automobile."
Not everyone is on board.
The Wake plan is "mass transit run amuck," according to a website launched by the Raleigh-based Wake County Taxpayers Association, which calls itself a "non-partisan, all-volunteer organization whose purpose is to monitor the use of taxes."
The association points out that ballot language, asking voters to approve a "one-half percent local sales and use tax" to be used only for public transportation systems is misleading because it fails to inform voters that most of the discussion about the sales tax and the plan has focused on a 10-year-period.
If the referendum passes, the group contends, it will trigger the implementation of the $5 billion, 20-year Wake County Transit Plan.
"This is a whole lot more than just a sales tax," the association's website said.
The association is also promoting an Oct. 14 report by the conservative John Locke Foundation, which attempts to debunk the virtues of the transit proposal and claims that 80% of the population will not be served by proposed high-frequency ridership options.
According to NC Policy Watch, 50% of all homes and 70% of all jobs will be within one-half mile of a transit stop.
Wake County commissioners voted unanimously in June 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%.
In Atlanta, a growing metropolitan region faced with gridlock, voters killed a transportation funding measure four years ago.
Early voting started Monday on the latest plan to ask local voters to approve a half-cent sales tax increase for the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority's 40-year capital plan.
The sales tax would raise an estimated $2.5 billion toward MARTA's $6.11 billion long-term capital program, which would include new high capacity rail, bus, and pedestrian improvements.
If passed, MARTA plans to leverage the sales tax with bonds, although the exact amount has not been determined, said Robbie Ashe, chairman of MARTA's board of directors and an attorney with Bondurant Mixson & Elmore LLP in Atlanta.
"One reason we sought long-term authority [to impose the tax] was so we could bond against the authorization, but in terms of specific amount or duration that remains to be seen," Ashe has said in previous interviews.
MARTA General Manager Keith Parker said if voters approve the referendum it will provide an opportunity to increase mobility, create new jobs, and spur economic opportunity across the city.
"We have worked diligently with city officials, as well as the public, to provide the voters as many options as possible for expanding MARTA in a robust way should the referendum be successful," he said.
On the same ballot Nov. 8, the city of Atlanta also will ask voters to approve an additional 0.4% increase in the sales tax to raise an estimated $300 million over the next five years to fund road and pedestrian projects within city limits.
If the MARTA and city taxes pass, they would raise Atlanta's sales tax to 8.9%, which would be among the region's highest local sales tax rates.