Over the course of the semester, Will Reach, president of Duke College Republicans, and I, co-president of Duke Democrats, will use this space to remind Duke students and community members why voting and politics matter, and to present current contentious issues from a bi-partisan perspective. Where better to start than a 2011 Durham County ballot initiative that directly impacts every Duke student: a referendum to raise sales tax in Durham by half of a percentage point for use in public transportation? Not only is this initiative good for Durham as a whole, you—as a Duke community member—particularly stand to benefit.
The strengths of this transportation tax are clear—Durham and Orange County are both trying to pass these ballot initiatives, to provide the capital to finance construction of two different types of rail services between Chapel Hill, Durham, Cary, Raleigh and parts of Wake County, to expand bus service hours and to add routes. These improvements to the Triangle’s public transportation network will help the region push forward as one of the fastest growing regions in the United States, and will allow it to jump some of the biggest hurdles that might impact or slow growth, like sprawl and congestion.
An intuitive and useful public transportation system is a boon to the economic growth, livability and environmental sustainability of cities. A report by the Economic Development Research Group found that for every $1 invested in public transportation, the short term value added to gross domestic product is $1.80; this doesn’t even account for the ways in which the existence of public transportation networks shape the ways cities are growing over the long-term, improving property values and drawing in employers. The same report found that over the long term, each $1 billion investment in public transportation added a whopping $3.5 billion to GDP. It’s time that we stop asking blanket questions like “Are taxes too high or too low?” and instead ask “Is this particular expenditure a good use of taxpayer money?” In the case of this public transportation tax, that question can be answered with a resounding yes! Durham’s system is already good, but because of network effects, the more that routes are connected and that service is expanded, the more the existing routes become used—the benefits keep compounding until you reach a point where people find it so convenient that they free themselves from their car entirely.
It is worth mentioning that the benefits of public transportation are shared throughout the populace, from low-income Durham residents who rely on public transportation as their primary means of transit, to corporations who can better lure talented employees concerned about the commute, but especially to Duke students with an eye on exploring the community.
Believe or not, there is a world beyond 9th and Main Streets. I would particularly be excited about a simplified route to Raleigh, home of a world-class art museum, tons of concerts and great food. Even if you have a car on campus, it is nevertheless worthwhile to consider never having to pick a designated driver and avoiding the hassles of parking. Since it’s the beginning of a school year, I’ll speak directly to freshmen for a moment: Duke can be an insular place, and if you never venture beyond walking distance of campus, you may never get a break from some peculiarly Duke mindsets.
Public transit is an incredibly valuable shared resource. You don’t have to be community-minded to endorse the public transit tax, but in doing so, you’ll not only end up with a great way to get around the region, but also add value to the community at large. We save money and oil (and ideally time) when we travel collectively. Will you hop on board?
Elena Botella is a Trinity junior and the co-president of Duke Democrats. Her column runs every other Tuesday.