On Tuesday, Durham County voters will decide whether to approve a sales tax increase that would help fund big improvements to public transit. Public transportation advocates across the Triangle have been working for years to plan a comprehensive network of buses and trains to make the area more commuter-friendly.
Bo Glenn is a retired attorney who heads Durham-Orange Friends of Transit, the main advocacy group for the measure. On this fall afternoon, Glenn and I are walking through a hardwood forest that borders a few houses and a shopping center. If the referendum were to pass, a commuter light-rail stop would eventually be built right here.
Jones and Bo Glenn: "This is actually a beautiful area. You probably have got to stop here, I'm not sure you want to go into the poison ivy."
There's poison ivy everywhere- just another sign this forested area doesn't get visitors very often. But Glenn says if Durham voters decide to approve the referendum, this place will eventually look very different.
Glenn: "You would see a station stop, you would see vertical construction for apartments, for offices, for retail, you would lose this forest, but by building density in the central core, we're going to be preserving a lot more forest in the outer parts of the county."
Glenn and other transit advocates hope Durham County voters share his opinion. The half-cent sales tax would generate more than 18 million dollars a year. The money would go for greatly expanded bus services, a commuter rail and eventually a light-rail line that would pass through here. Glenn says if Triangle residents don't get behind improving public transit, the area is going to become a very difficult place to live.
Glenn: "Right now we're the third most sprawled region in the country and if you let that continue unabated, we'll be the number one most sprawled region in the country."
Up to one and a half million newcomers are expected to arrive in the Triangle over the next twenty years. Wake and Orange counties are part of the area's big master plan for transit too, but unlike Durham, they haven't put referendums before voters yet. And the money is essential to getting the project off the ground. Ellen Reckhow is a Durham County Commissioner.
Ellen Reckhow:" It is daunting, we decided to move ahead because we felt the timing was right for Durham to do it this year."
Reckhow believes if Durham can get the measure passed, that will help Wake and Orange counties win voters' approval in the fall of 2012. She says Durham's part of the plan focuses on getting residents to and from Research Triangle Park, Duke, and UNC in Orange County.
Reckhow: "Those are huge nodes. And these transit plans that we have connect to our major employment centers, and will help tremendously to move people to the jobs. "
Reckhow says if the referendum passes, the tax increase won't begin automatically. Commissioners have decided to wait until Wake and Orange Counties pass their own revenue-raising measures. It would only apply to luxury items including clothing and consumer goods. But not everyone favors raising taxes for transit improvements. Ted Hicks is the chair of Durham's Republican Party.
Ted Hicks: It would be more expensive to shop in Durham than in surrounding counties. People who are spending money on luxury goods- they're going to do it regardless. We're driving those shoppers away, go shop somewhere else and spend less of your money.
Hicks says he's not against public transportation, but he's not sure this transit plan is the right one for the area.
Hicks: When the ballot is drawn up, it's not a yes or no question, it's not a multiple choice. And to begin with we don't believe the Raleigh-Durham area is a viable place for light rail.
At this point the plan is set, but the bigger question is whether Durham voters know much about it. Jackie Cole is a student who's catching a bus home from Durham's main bus depot.
Jones and Jackie Cole: So do you know about the referendum? Not much about it but I've heard about it actually. Are you planning to vote? Um, well I have a lot of stuff on my slate right now, you know life as it is, but I've been thinking about it.
Cole says he hasn't decided yet whether he'll actually show up at the polls.