Unfinished business in Raleigh: Transit

When legislative leaders Marc Basnight and Joe Hackney created the 21st Century Transportation Committee in 2007 to examine ways to improve North Carolina's transportation system and study innovative methods of funding them, no one was really counting on the 2008 legislature to solve the problem.

After all, it had taken years of population growth, political interference and lack of leadership to allow the state's infrastructure to fall into disrepair, congestion to worsen and management systems to fail. There was no way to come up with a comprehensive solution everyone agreed upon and get it through the legislature in an election-year short session.

But the committee did a remarkable thing: It came up with some good ideas, especially for helping urban areas faced with congestion problems for which more roads and more lanes aren't the right answer. The proposal – inspired by the early success of Charlotte's Lynx Blue Line – was pushed by former N.C. Transportation Secretary Sam Hunt and sponsored in the legislature by Rep. Becky Carney, D-Mecklenburg, and Sen. Richard Stevens, R-Wake.

The bill provides the first comprehensive approach to transportation funding in memory, providing funds to plan transportation services as well as improve rail facilities and inland ports. It would also extend local transit funding options to other large urban areas besides Charlotte – and give all the urban areas more choices on how to fund local needs.

Residents of the Piedmont Triad and Research Triangle counties would be able to vote in referendums for a half-cent sales tax as Mecklenburg County has, while Mecklenburg residents would be able to hold a referendum on vehicle registration fees that could be dedicated for transit use. Counties contiguous to the large urban areas could adopt a quarter-cent sales tax increase to help pay for transit services. Counties of 160,000 population or more could adopt car rental taxes for transit systems. That's an enviable menu of options for medium and large urban areas that cannot count on other sources of income to pay for transportation programs.

The bill ran into some flak in the legislature from lawmakers who didn't want to appear to be approving new taxes, even if it was only giving some areas the right to vote in – or vote down – additional taxes and fees. While legislators did approve $25 million to jump-start construction of new toll roads in Wake and, eventually, Union, Gaston and Mecklenburg, they wisely put off considering the transit funding bill until the 2009 session. That's when a new governor, lieutenant governor and General Assembly will take office. Between now and then, transportation groups, environmental advocates and public-spirited citizens should take the opportunity to build public support for the proposal – and ask candidates for office this fall to declare where they stand on these much-needed transit funding options.