Monday, March 27, 2023

County takes strides to educate on transit sales tax referendum ahead of election

Wave Transit could benefit from the quarter-cent public transportation sales tax referendum, which will appear on the ballot in November. (Port City Daily photo/Alexandria Sands)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — A quarter-cent public transportation sales tax will be on the November 2022 ballot for New Hanover County voters to weigh in on. But many may wonder: What will it fund, exactly?

As of Thursday the county has created a website —  — to answer that question. It is part of a campaign the county has launched to give the voting public ample time to keep abreast of how their taxes will be spent if the referendum moves forward. If passed, it could bring in $140 million over 10 years. 

READ MORE: Not without debate, county moves forward with transit sales tax on November ballot

In short, the county has stated that the tax would work in multifaceted ways:

  • Connecting people to jobs and education
  • Expanding reliable and efficient bus service and on-demand transit
  • Enhancing trail connections and pedestrian safety
  • Improving community health and positively impact the environment
  • Leveraging local dollars for more state and federal funds to improve public transportation and rail realignment; and plan for our community’s growth and future

“Having personal mobility, being able to easily and safely get where you need to go, and creating a more walkable and bikeable community is important for the growth and health of our community,” Jonathan Barfield Jr., the commissioner leading the education campaign, said.

County officials expect improvements would be visible within the first five years of the sales tax. Around $56 million would go to bike and pedestrian needs.

Priorities include adding core trails in the northern and southern portions of the county. It also would improve the South College Road and Masonboro Loop Road trails, as well as the 2.2-mile paved trail from 3rd Street to the Love Grove Bridge, slated to have connections at 5th Street and McRae Street.

Crosswalk improvements would target 3rd and Dawson streets, Military Cutoff Road and Wrightsville Avenue, as well as 17th Street and Glen Meade Drive.

It also could fund bicycle and pedestrian projects in beach towns and throughout Wilmington, and help with the construction of additional sidewalks. Intersection updates — Princess Place and 26th streets, Market and 29th, 16th/17th St. and Hospital Plaza Dr. — are listed as well.

If the referendum passes it will increase the sales tax from 7% to 7.25%, though it won’t impact groceries, gas or pharmaceutical medicines. Wave Transit would receive $65 million to improve frequency of routes, so buses could make stops every 30 to 45 minutes and increase hours of operation, especially in evenings.

Infrastructure would also be improved with the inclusion of 17 new benches, 10 new shelters, and signs at the stops that inform real-time arrivals. Funds also would be used for new technology for rider access and free youth passes.

Finally, $23.1 million would go toward rail realignment. First, the South Front Street project would be completed. It includes widening a two-lane road into four lanes, relocating railroad tracks to the west side of the road, and removing the rail from running through the middle of the road.

“The transportation sales tax could have a meaningful impact on residents, provide access where it doesn’t exist currently, and improve life in New Hanover County for everyone to move forward and go even further,” Barfield added in the release, explaining its benefits bring “greater connectivity, increased physical activity, and healthier lifestyles.”

If voters pass the referendum, commissioners will regroup behind the dais to officially levy the tax. It would be implemented by April 2023.

Commissioners met multiple times since December to discuss the referendum and work through hurdles that could be presented. Many waxed and waned in support, and at a May commissioners meeting, Rob Zapple and Deb Hays, both formerly behind the referendum, had shifted support.

They expressed concerns with being able to educate the public in a timely manner and ensure the importance of the referendum wouldn’t be lost. Both also worried over the timing of adding another tax increase, as cost-of-living expenses have risen to record-high rates. More importantly, they wanted support of the business community, which Natalie English of the chamber of commerce said at the May meeting was mixed among members of the chamber.

“We aren’t saying no. We’re saying no for now,” she said. “We propose that the chamber work with the county and the city to develop and implement public input and detailed plans and a longer education plan leading to the potential of a more successful outcome in 2024.”

The county launched on Thursday. It’s broken up by projects funded by the tax and has a detailed frequently asked questions section for individuals to refer to in order to gain all the information ahead of casting their votes at the polls.

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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