In a February work session of the county commissioners, Chapel Hill mayor Mark Kleinschmidt took the podium to present a sweeping overview of the past 25 years of his town's approach to land use planning. Speaking with the didactic urgency we now expect from Kleinschmidt when he's both prepared and fired up, the mayor encouraged the commissioners to maintain their commitment to long-term planning for public transportation by adopting the Orange County transit plan.
Kleinschmidt's presentation highlighted Chapel Hill's planning for a transit-oriented future. In comprehensive plans and small area plans as far back as 1989, the town has identified opportunities for an integrated approach to land use and transit. Development plans for Meadowmont, Hillmont, East 54, the Friday Center, and the Ephesus Church area all reflect, in part, this integration.
For many years, the county commissioners also have worked with our regional neighbors on a long-term vision for transit. In June, after years of planning and public comment, the commissioners adopted the Orange County transit plan. To pay for the plan, they placed a half-cent sales tax referendum on the upcoming November ballot.
The Orange County transit plan includes nearly 41,000 new hours of bus service throughout the county, new park-and-ride lots, more accessible bus stops, and technology for real-time passenger information. Most of the bus service improvements will be provided in the first five years of the plan. The plan also includes an Amtrak passenger rail station in Hillsborough, light rail service from Chapel Hill to Durham, and bus rapid transit on Chapel Hill's Martin Luther King Jr Boulevard.
Funding for the transit plan will come from a combination of local, state, and federal contributions. A vote for the referendum in November will allow the county to collect revenue from a half-cent sales tax. (This tax will not apply to food, medicine, health care, gas, or housing.) Also, small proportions of the funding will come from an additional $10 in the annual vehicle registration fee and from Triangle Transit's rental car tax.
Opponents of the plan have expressed concerns about costs. For example, one persistent and false rumor is that the light rail component of the plan will soak up 90 percent of the funding. In reality, light rail service will account for about 50 percent of the funding.
Opponents also claim that the transit plan will not benefit residents outside the southeastern corner of the county. Of course, most service improvements will occur in and around Chapel Hill and Carrboro. This area has the greatest concentration of county residents (and is the greatest source of sales tax revenue). Nevertheless, in the first five years alone, the plan will bring weekend service to the Hillsborough circulator bus, a new express bus route from Mebane to Hillsborough to Durham, more hours of on-demand service in the county's rural areas, and an Amtrak station in Hillsborough.
In the longer term, the plan includes additional enhancements to bus service and more frequent service on the 420 route between Hillsborough and Chapel Hill. The plan also includes new park-and-ride lots in the northern half of the county. Triangle Transit estimates these lots will have a "catchment area"—the area typically served by the lots—that reaches 90 to 95 percent of the population of the county
The population of our region continues to grow. We can respond to growth with sprawl, or we can adopt long-range plans that concentrate growth around transit corridors. Sprawl harms the entire county, rural and urban, stripping these places of their unique heritage, cultural significance, and aesthetic appeal. Transit-oriented planning encourages urban areas to be urban and rural areas to be rural.
When Mayor Kleinschmidt spoke with the county commissioners, he explained that we plan for transit not because we want transit, but because we want livability. A vote for the half-cent transit tax on November 6 will preserve and promote livability for all Orange County.
[A version of this post appears in the October 6, 2012, issue of the Chapel Hill News.]