Carrboro asked to shoulder burden of transportation plan for promise of a better tomorrow

By Ari Sen 

A presentation of GoTriangle’s nearly $2.5-billion-dollar public transportation improvement plan at the February 7 board of alderman meeting left some of the town leaders questioning whether the plan was worth the cost.Alderman Randee Haven-O’Donnell, one of the most outspoken opponents of the plan, said she is concerned about the plan’s cost, particularly with the proposed light rail system.

Alderman Randee Haven-O’Donnell, one of the most outspoken opponents of the plan, said she is concerned about the plan’s cost, particularly with the proposed light rail system.

“There is a real concern that we could be creating something that in 17.2 miles that Carrboro and west of Carrboro in Orange County would have very limited use, that we would pay a hefty bill for and people have to ask themselves ‘do I pay for something I can’t use?’ and pay for it not in a short period of time but pay for it over 42 years,” Haven-O’Donnell said. “That’s an extraordinary ask. And I just want to be sure that people in Carrboro understand what that ask is.”

The public transit plan was approved in the 2012 election through an Orange County referendum, which passed by a margin of 59-41. The plan covers several improvements in the public transportation system including enhancing to bus service, capital projects like sidewalks and bikeways and the light rail system that would connect Durham and Chapel Hill, terminating at N.C. Memorial Hospital.

Haven-O’Donnell said she is concerned that the plan doesn’t include any stops in Carrboro, despite Carrboro residents being asked to pay into the plan.

“I’ve been on the record since the inception of the plan as being concerned that Carrboro, which is the most densely populated municipality in the state, will not have a rail stop,” Haven O’Donnell said. “I think I’d feel entirely different if Carrboro had a rail stop.”

According to the plan submitted by GoTriange, the agency in charge of the transportation plan, the light rail project would be completed by 2028 and would be paid off by 2062. The transportation plan is paid through a combination of a half penny public transportation sales tax, vehicle registration fees and support from the N.C. General Assembly. However, because of a law passed by the General Assembly in last year that capped the state’s contribution to rail projects at 10 percent, the plan lost approximately $250 million that it original planned on. Trish McGuire, the planning director for the town of Carrboro, said the town is also able to receive some federal funding.

“(The plan) is trying to set up a framework for transit use,” McGuire said.

“We are able to use are local dollars to leverage federal dollars.”

Alderman Damon Seils said that GoTriangle is submitting a financial plan that addresses the lack of state funding and that he remains confident in the plan.

“As far as I’m concerned the light rail project is a good idea today for the same reasons it was a good idea back in 2011 and 2012 when the county commissioners approved it and the voters approved a referendum to support it,” Seils said.

“To say that the counties transit plan doesn’t benefit Carrboro directly is just false.”

Seils said the light rail plan could potentially be extended to include a stop in Carrboro. Haven O’Donnell says she is skeptical about that ever happening.

“It’s an assumption and you know what they say about assume—it makes an ass out of you and me,” Haven-O’Donnell said. “You can’t bank on (adding a Carrboro stop).”

Haven O’Donnell also expressed concern about how complex the financial plan had become.

“When we heard the gentleman from GoTriangle speak at our Carrboro board meeting, one of the things that really evident is that they are not really sure how to explain the complexity,” Haven-O’Donnell said. “Now if you can’t explain what’s going on financially and you’ve cobbled something together rather quickly in order to not lose the sequencing and progression of the project there is something wrong.”

Seils said the plan has only had two significant increases in cost since its inception—one to pay for a proposed rail stop at North Carolina Central University and another to spread the cost of the plan out for another two years. Seils said despite the increases the plan is still largely the same and that it will be a net benefit to the town.

“The specific issue on the light rail project we keep hearing a lot of comments about how there are huge cost overruns which is false or that’s it not going to serve that many people which is false,” Seils said.

“It all depends on how you express our numbers and people are basically comparing numbers like apples to oranges.”

Haven O’Donnell said she believes the plan may be unwise because modes in transportation may change to reflect new technology and is protecting the town from making a bad investment.

“I’m just raising questions because I don’t want anyone to turn to an elected official and say ‘you let me down, you didn’t tell me all I needed to know.’” Haven-O’Donnell said.

“It takes a lot of courage to say ‘The way this has morphed is not a good fit.’ They are essentially mortgaging folks’ children and grandchildren’s future.”

Seils encouraged residents to look past just the light rail portion of the plan to the potential benefits.

“I think people have been focusing on the light rail but it’s actually a lot more than that,” Seils said.  “The benefits of any transit system, much like the benefits of any kind of public good are not simply about what you personally get out of it. In other words, I don’t have to ride a bus or ride a train personally to see that it benefits the community as a whole.”

Photo used as Creative Commons. 

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