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Thursday, November 10, 2011

Durham passes Transportation sales tax 

The way the train used to roll into Durham...
Photo courtesy of Old West Durham Neighborhood Association

Durham passed a half of a cent sales tax increase yesterday designed to augment mass transportation in the area. The program includes improvements to Durham's bus system beginning in 2012, including more buses on high rider-use routes, expanded regional bus service and expanded bus service to RDU Airport. Of course, the plan's authors sold it the public as a light rail program, knowing that despite its practicality and relatively low cost, nobody loves the bus.

The trains are in the plan, too. It calls for thirty-seven miles of commuter rail between Durham, RTP and Raleigh. This portion includes the construction of four new commuter rail stations in Durham, beginning as early as 2018. It also includes the much publicized seventeen miles of light rail between Durham and Chapel Hill, with as many as twelve stations scheduled to begin construction as early as 2025.

Long time readers know, that like many, the Clarion Content has a hard time advocating in favor of more taxes and increased government spending. But even in our limited government preferring hearts, we can see where a common good like mass transportation infrastructure is the kind of thing that the classic social contract calls for government to do. Build infrastructure so our individualistic, car-loving neighbors don't so clog the roads, and thereby pollute the air, that our little neck of the woods becomes the next sprawled out Atlanta or Los Angeles.

The Clarion Content gets especially edgy when the plan's advocates will not entirely disavow the use of eminent domain to construct the mass transit system they envision. We recall the very first time we heard about light rail in the Triangle, it was more than a decade ago, and it was because the word on the street was that they were going to close Sam's Blue Light.

We were opposed then and we are still concerned now and not just about our beer supply.1 Eminent domain has a history of being used diabolically to help the strong take advantage of the weak. We believe in the good intentions of the authors of the Durham Bus & Rail improvement plan. We think they genuinely want to help the community. And our area needs the help, some projections show regional population is set to increase by nearly one million more people in the next twenty years. If folks continued to use their cars at the same rate that we do now, the Durham/Raleigh/Chapel Hill area would be among the nation's most congested.

And all those cars would continue to gobble up open space, encouraging development to spread further out. Conversely trains drive development to city and population centers, preserving outlying and rural areas by default. The Clarion Content is not totally sold on this rationale. This is especially because we have heard that existing plans call for the construction of a rail station in the heavily wooded area on Farrington Road between NC 54 and US 40. We can, again, see the good intentions and the utilitarian logic of building a station in this location. We cannot ignore geography or demography.2

The kicker, the tiebreaker as it were, is the economy. In good times, there might be better rationale to debate against this kind of government investment, but in these times of stagnation and persistently high unemployment, infrastructure spending that yields jobs is welcome. Initial estimates by the plans authors project both a significant number of new jobs related to years of construction, and permanent professional service jobs, perhaps as many as 6,400 new positions in total. These jobs would be huge boon to the community.

Furthermore, there is some smart planning that is part of what has us convinced of the good intentions and aims of the authors of the proposal. The buses are an important piece to the Clarion Content. Buses are disproportionately used by the neediest members of society. Additionally, in an effort to minimize the regressivity of the new sales tax, it exempts gas, food, housing, utilities and medical bills. This we approve of, and, it gives us a good opinion of those moving the plan forward.

The jobs and the economic impact combined with heading-off potentially gruesome sprawl and congestion are enough to tip the Clarion Content's scales in favor of this proposition. We will be watching and covering its implementation closely.

We would note that it is our contention that far too many Americas take lightly what we have, and we don't just mean the loot/material things that we call our "stuff." We mean the very houses that we live in and streets that we walk. America has a massive amount of infrastructure and development. Somebody3 built every bit of it: roads, bridges, sewer systems, the electrical grid, etc. Although he has been blithely ignored by Congress, we did agree with the gist of the argument that President Obama made in his now nearly forgotten jobs address.4

Our grateful thanks to Bo Glenn without whom this piece would not have been possible.

1This plan, under the auspices of the Triangle Transit Authority, failed for lack of local government investment.

2This area has already seen a tranche of new homes built. And there will be far more downtown stations and downtown construction than there will be in rural and outlying areas.


4Three years too late, but right idea, finally.

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