NEW HANOVER COUNTY — New Hanover County voters will have the opportunity to voice their say in the future of the region’s public transportation when they head to the polls this general election. On the ballot will be a referendum for a quarter-cent sales tax increase — equaling an extra penny for every $4 spent — to help improve and expand the Wave Transit bus system, fund new multi-use paths and back a major project to relocate rail tracks out of Wilmington.
The New Hanover County Board of Commissioners voted 4-1 Monday afternoon to place the item on the Nov. 8 election ballot. Assuming sales tax grows 3% annually, the quarter-cent sales tax would generate $144.4 million over 10 years. The county would get $65 million (about 45%) of the revenue, and the city would accumulate $79.4 million (about 55%).
In the winter, commissioners Rob Zapple and Jonathan Barfield, along with three city council members, unanimously favored the idea of a sales tax referendum in an ad hoc committee. Zapple and Barfield were most vocal about their support this week.
“Any prosperous metropolitan city has a vibrant public transportation system,” Barfield said. “This is not just about public transportation, but it’s key to economic development, in my opinion, when it comes to recruiting jobs and companies to your community as well.”
The city and county held a joint meeting in February where the prospect of the sales tax still looked uncertain. The meeting was the morning after Russia invaded Ukraine, which has impacted the U.S. economy, most notably reflected in gas prices. County chair Julia Olson-Boseman indicated the war “changed everything,” but city officials — some more frustrated than others — stressed a need to proceed. Since the city doesn’t have the power to place the sales tax on the ballot itself, it was relying on the county to put it up for a vote.
Monday afternoon, Olson-Boseman was still opposed, casting the sole dissenting vote. She said, while the items were worth funding, she wasn’t in favor of the sales tax.
“I think the timing is bad. It’s just one vote. A lot of people and businesses are still struggling,” she said. “We all asked staff to bring us a budget reducing taxes, property taxes, and now we’re going to ask to vote to raise sales tax?”
Other commissioners saw it as a way to spread out the responsibility to tourists and Brunswick and Pender county residents who drive into Wilmington each day. An estimated 61,000 cars cross the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge daily.
Per state law, the money would exclusively fund public transportation and could not go toward street or road improvements.
The bulk of the $144.4 million would go toward expanding and supporting Wave Transit, which has faced financial shortfalls for years. The county has created a plan that allocates $65 million to the busing system over a decade, about 45% of the income. There is also a long-term plan to, one day, weave bus rapid transit into the area — a system of dedicated lanes and lights for buses to move much quicker through the city, bypassing traffic.
Wave Transit is, of course, hopeful to get the sales tax referendum on the ballot as a potential dedicated stream of revenue. However, it’s also been clear the budget is balanced for at least the next two years because of injections from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
“Should a delay be necessary, we are currently sustainable and are fully prepared with multiple options in response to any decisions moving forward,” Cape Fear Public Transportation Authority executive director Marie Parker told Port City Daily last month.
The sales tax would generate about $56 million over 10 years for bike and pedestrian paths, representing about 39% of the spending plan. Multi-use paths are a high priority for residents, county staff highlighted.
Wilmington’s potentially billion-dollar rail realignment project would take in about $23 million, 16% of the plan, over 10 years. The complex undertaking involves moving the rail route out of the way of the busy city streets and crossing it over the river into Brunswick County. In effect, it would ease traffic in Wilmington and create a more efficient system from which the port can benefit.
Per North Carolina’s statute, a public hearing must be held on the sales tax referendum at least 30 days prior to the election. It will likely be scheduled for early summer, prior to the ballot being finalized.
The language to go on the ballot is predetermined by the state statute as well. When voters reach the booth, they will be asked if they’re “for” or “against”:
“One-quarter percent (1/4%) local sales and use taxes, in addition to the current local sales and use taxes, to be used only for public transportation systems.”
If voters approve the referendum, the commissioners would need to adopt a resolution to levy the sales tax.
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