New BTC Brief: Transit plans should consider where low-income North Carolinians live and work

Durham and Orange county residents are one step closer to accessing more affordable-transportation options. Each of the counties’ Board of Commissioners recently selected April 1, 2013 as the date to begin collecting the half-cent sales tax to support public transit investments. Expanded bus services and new commuter and light rail have the potential of expanding the reach of opportunity by connecting North Carolinians who are poor to the education, employment, and social networks that can help them improve their financial standing.

However, public transit is only helpful to riders if it connects where they live to where the opportunities are available, according to a new report released yesterday by the NC Budget and Tax Center. The success of transit, in turn, rests on increasing access for who regularly use and depend on it: low-income North Carolinians. The report found that more than two-thirds of the state’s workers using transit earn less than $25,000 per year, and a growing share of low-income workers are relying on public transit. The report also found that housing is becoming increasingly unaffordable in the urban cores, where public transit is primarily located and jobs are more plentiful.

These public transit expansions will be funded with a regressive half-cent sales tax increase. As illustrated in this infographic, lower-income residents already pay a greater share of their income in state and local taxes compared to upper-income residents. Because lower-income people will be paying a greater share of their income to finance transit expansions, it is especially important that lower-income residents get to benefit from the new infrastructure investments. Policymakers must also be certain that these investments mitigate the growing spatial mismatch between affordable housing and transit.

Improving successful transit outcomes requires comprehensive planning so that transit plans are coordinated with housing and workforce policies before transit stations become operational. As I wrote last fall, research shows that neighborhoods surrounding new transit hubs often experience higher housing costs, gentrification, and the arrival of higher-income residents who are less likely to use public transit. These changes are more pronounced in neighborhoods surrounding new light rail.

In fact, just last week, the Charlotte Observer reported that the average rental price of an apartment near Charlotte’s light is roughly $350 more expensive than the overall city average rental price. This data is concerning for both core-transit users and also for the prospects of successful of transit.

It appears that Durham’s Joint City-County Planning Committee recognizes that this type of neighborhood change minimizes the broadly shared benefits of transit investments and stymies successful transit outcomes. Earlier this month, the Committee directed the Planning Department to start the comprehensive-planning efforts around the transit stations. Orange County should follow suit and prioritize and commit to equitable development.

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