Quarter-cent sales tax for public transportation in New Hanover County

Posted August 18, 2022 at 9:02 am

By County Manager, Chris Coudriet

When ballot boxes open for the upcoming 2022 elections, our community will be asked to answer a question – Is improved mobility and access to public transportation something our citizens have a desire to make possible through sales tax funds?

Before voting yes or no, it’s important to understand how this tax could affect everyday life and what the collected proceeds could mean for our community.

Anytime talk of a new tax is bandied about, it understandably begs questions about how it will impact personal budgets. This quarter-cent sales tax would apply to a lot of things you might buy on a regular basis, however it would not change the cost of many everyday necessities, like everyday food items, fuel or prescription medication which would not be eligible for this sales tax.

The current sales tax rate in New Hanover County is 7 percent. If this tax is approved by voters and then levied by the Board of Commissioners, the rate would go up to 7.25 percent. That change would go into effect in April 2023 if it moves forward. Keep in mind, this tax impacts anyone who spends money in New Hanover County, including our commuters, visitors and tourists.

What would this quarter of a penny increase mean in real numbers? If you were to buy $100 worth of eligible items today under the current sales tax rate, you would pay a total of $107. If voters approve the sales tax and it is then levied, you would pay $107.25.

So, one additional quarter for every $100 spent. But those quarters could foster new opportunities that are also important to understand.

Using predictive models based on recent tax revenues and expected growth, our finance team has estimated this tax could generate around $14 million, or more, per year in new revenue for transportation related improvements and expansions in our county.

This money would go directly into projects that make it easier for residents and visitors to move throughout our community, especially by alternative means.

In the tax’s first five years of existence, it is anticipated that more than 10 miles of new multi-use trails, along with five additional sidewalks and nine improvements to intersections/crosswalks, could be planned and constructed, helping people move around our community safer and more directly. That means, it might be possible for you to visit the store, a park, or your favorite restaurant on foot or by riding your bike rather than cranking up your car.

Increased frequency of Wave Transit routes is also a top priority, as this funding would be used to help cut wait times for even more buses down to 45 minutes or less. There would also be plans to expand the hours of operation for both buses and microtransit services by 16 hours per week, giving people who work earlier or later the chance to access these options.

Additionally, potential improvements to current bus stop locations include 17 new benches, 10 new shelters and signage at 10 of the busiest stops in the county that show real-time arrival times. There’s also plans to add new technology for riders, including free wi-fi access, and provide free youth rider passes to help young people get where they need to be in the community at no cost to them or their families.

The final piece in this plan is one part of a much bigger puzzle – rail realignment. The goal is to use a portion of the tax revenue in tandem with and to leverage state and federal funding to begin planning and start preliminary work on projects that would realign the rail system currently running throughout our community. This would help improve traffic flow, add new sidewalks following relocation of the rails and, one day, many years from now, possibly repurpose existing rails for public transportation.

These enhanced transportation opportunities have the potential to benefit every citizen, our neighborhoods, the environment, and overall safety throughout the city, unincorporated areas of the county, and in the beach towns. And projects like these have been shown to benefit economic development – with every $1 invested in public transportation efforts like these generating $5 in economic returns, according to the American Public Transportation Association.

Robust transportation infrastructure also benefits businesses with a more diverse, broad, and specialized labor market that has easier access to work with faster commute times and more accessible transportation. It also increases shopping opportunities, bringing a wider customer market, increased productivity for business, and more economic growth for the community.

Which brings us back to where we started – you, the citizens of New Hanover County, will get to decide if this sales tax is brought before the Board of Commissioners for a vote to levy the tax, which could lead to supporting projects like these in the near term and long term.

I hope you reach out and ask questions of the experts to learn more about this sales tax prior to casting your vote in the upcoming election. You can find more information at TrailsTransitNHC.com.

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