Primer on Transit Referendum and Associated Transit Plan

It turns out that many people are uninformed or misinformed about the specifics of the transit tax and the plan.  Foks don't even realize that there's a plan behind the tax referendum, and that a vote for the tax endorses it.    If the tax passes, the BoCC and TTA have the authority to levy the tax and proceed with the plan. .
Without debating the pros and cons of transit , I hope that readers take a few minutes to understand the plan. We sent the primer below to our mailing list. It includes links to the plan and the financial information.

Primer on Transit Plan, Taxes and Fees

Voters will decide a 1/2 cent tax increase for transit. Please take a few minutes to learn about this tax and the underlying plan before you vote.

The county commissioners have placed a 1/2 cent sales tax increase for light rail (LRT) and other transit services on the ballot. If voters approve the increase, sales taxes will increase from 7 to 7 1/2%, and officials will increase annual vehicle registration fees from $33 to $43.

A vote "for" the tax authorizes the BoCC to levy the tax and the fees to fund Triangle Transit Authority's (TTA) transit plan. A vote against the tax indicates that you oppose the tax and/or the plan. If voters oppose the tax, it can be brought forward on a later ballot.

Transit Plan Overview

Orange County's transit plan seeks $660 million from local, state and federal sources over the 22 years. Seventy percent of the money goes to light rail transit (LRT). The rest goes toward park and ride lots, bus service, and an Amtrak station in Hillsborough. Planned services would be in addition to bus services from Chapel HIll Transit (CHT), Orange Public Transit (OPT) and Triangle Transit Authority (TTA). Funds from the tax can be applied to new services only.

The proposed light rail service (LRT) goes to Durham. Four miles of rail in Orange County complete a 17 mile line that extends from UNC hospital, along East NC 54, to downtown Durham, Duke Medical Center and Alston Ave. The estimated cost for the entire rail line is $1.4 billion with ¾ of the funds sought from federal and state grants.

There are no plans for direct service from Orange County to RTP, RDU or Raleigh. Wake County, the primary population center, is not participating in TTA's plan, and Wake County leaders have not discussed the plan or tax.

Durham voters approved the tax and plan last year. The plan provides LRT through Durham's targeted economic development areas. Orange County's participation is required for Durham to move their plans forward.

Plan Components

The plan has four major components:

  • Four miles of light rail service (LRT) from UNC hospital along NC 54 East to Duke Hospital and on to Alston Ave in Durham. The estimated cost is $477 millon, with service beginning in 2026.
  • Two and one-half miles of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) along MLK Blvd from I-40 to Estes Road for a cost of $24.5 million. Operating expenses are not included in the plan. To learn more about BRT, click here.
  • A 34,000 hour increase in bus service (3-4% increase per year over five years) including service on Sunday and when UNC is on recess. The estimate for buses, park and rides and operations is $131 million for 22 years of service.
  • An Amtrak Train Station in Hillsborough ($8.9 million) which Hillsborough has been planning for years.

Plan Management and Funding

The proposed transit plan for Orange County is estimated to cost $660 million through 2035. Over 70% of the spending ($477 million) is for light rail from UNC Hospital to the Durham county line on NC 54. Light rail operations begin in 2026. The remaining funds will be used for park and rides, bus service, and Hillsborough's Amtrak Station.

Local revenues (sales tax, vehicle fee, other) would fund about 1/4 of the plan. Half of the funding relies on federal grants; 1/4 on state grants. The plan adds $24 million of local debt

Changes to the plan scope, funding or cost, including loss of grant funding, are governed by an "implementation agreement". Orange County, TTA and the Durham/Chapel Hill Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) must unanimously approve material changes to the plan or its funding. Durham monies are managed separately from Orange County's - but it is unclear how TTA will manage conflicting priorities if/as they arise.

The sales tax must be used for new services. Based on state law, the sales tax cannot be used to "supplant", i.e. replace, funds currently provided by CHT or UNC. The vehicle fees are unrestricted.

Contrary to the plan, $7 of the $10 vehicle fee has been reallocated to CHT for existing services (roughly $780,000 per year or $22 million total). Planners have not disclosed what services would be cut to accomodate this change.


Authorizing Legislation

In 2009, the state legislature authorized a 1/2 cent sales tax increase for transit by voter referendum. They also authorized counties and TTA to add $15 to annual vehicle registration fees (without voter approval). TTA has already levied $5 of the $15 fee. For the legislation, click here.




The full plan, including maps, cick here.

Financial information, click here

Voting and registration information, click here

For voter information, including sample ballots, click here


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