Let’s admit that the transit plan is dead
Plus: Understanding the issues behind a possible bus driver strike
You’re reading Transit Time, a weekly newsletter for Charlotte people who leave the house. Cars, buses, light rail, bikes, scooters … if you use it to get around the city, we write about it. Transit Time is produced in partnership between The Charlotte Ledger and WFAE.
Analysis: This week’s skepticism from legislative leaders underscores how little Charlotte has advanced its transit plan in 2 years. Time for a fresh start?
N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore (center) and Senate leader Phil Berger (right) cast doubt on Charlotte’s transit plan on Monday, in conversations with reporters following a discussion at the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance uptown. (Charlotte Ledger photo)
By Tony Mecia
There’s a saying that the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
In early 2020, Charlotte convened a task force charged with devising a plan to improve transportation. Its recommendations: fund a wide range of transit initiatives, including light rail, paid for by federal grants and by raising sales taxes by 1 percentage point. The big hurdle, most people acknowledged, would be getting the state legislature to allow Mecklenburg County to hold a referendum on a sales tax hike.
Fast forward to today, and where are we? Well, there have been a lot of meetings, consultants and planning. But the big hurdle, most people still acknowledge, is still getting the state legislature to allow a referendum on a sales tax hike.
Underscoring that point, House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger this week held a discussion on legislative priorities at the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance offices on South Tryon Street. After an hour-long presentation, at which they neither mentioned nor were asked by business leaders about a transit tax, Moore and Berger took questions from reporters — who were eager to ask about the topic, which is supposedly Charlotte’s top legislative priority.
Asked about a possible tax to help pay for a $13.5 billion plan that includes light rail, better bus service, bike lanes and greenways, Moore said: “What I want to see us talk about when we talk about transportation is not more of these bike lanes, not more of the rail, all those things that cost so much that really only serve a limited purpose, but really increasing the capacity when it comes to our roads and our thoroughfares.”
Berger said: “I need to talk to our members. But generally, our folks have been reluctant to increase authorization for sales taxes for localities.”
So after more than two years of vision sessions and consultants, of studies and proclamations, where is the progress on the linchpin of the transit effort: gaining the blessing of the General Assembly?
Based on legislative leaders’ comments this week, it looks like no progress, or even worse — moving backward.
Maybe it’s time to openly acknowledge what some leaders suspect in private: that Charlotte’s plan is going nowhere. It’s showing no signs of life.
No amount of wishing otherwise will revive it. Its success can’t be manifested by speeches or press releases or tweets. And hope is not a strategy for making it happen.
A big divide
In September, talking about the transit plan, Mayor Vi Lyles said: “In Charlotte, we have a plan and no money.”
Not to get too philosophical, but if you have a plan and no money, do you really have a plan at all?
The political reality is that whether Charlotte likes it or not, Moore and Berger have a lot of power. In North Carolina, cities and counties can do only what state law allows them to do. And they can’t raise sales taxes on their own.
There’s inherent tension between legislative leaders, who are Republicans from rural areas, and Charlotte’s leaders, who are Democrats running the state’s largest city.
Some people here consider Moore’s and Berger’s views on transit and transportation to be unenlightened and disconnected with the needs of a growing city. Moore is from Kings Mountain, population 11,000. Berger is from Eden, population 15,000. Still, their status as legislative leaders would seem to demand that if you want to get your key initiative approved, you’d either persuade them of the virtues of your plan or incorporate their views into a plan they can support. Win them over, or hammer out a compromise.
It’s evident neither of those has happened.
(Another option would be to wait for a leadership change at the General Assembly. But there’s no evidence to suggest that Moore’s and Berger’s views differ from those of fellow Republicans, who dominate both the House and Senate with solid majorities. Democrats seem unlikely to gain control anytime soon, especially with Republicans likely to redraw some legislative districts this year.)
Some of us have thought that there must be some secret strategy to win approval of a sales tax referendum from the General Assembly — some back-channel communications between pro-transit city leaders and transit- and tax-skeptical legislative leaders in Raleigh. The city has a reputation for working out key details of big projects in private and keeping any messy sausage-making hidden from public view, an approach that has sometimes been called “the Charlotte way.”
But if that modus operandi were in effect here, you’d expect Moore and Berger to be at least noncommittal and say something like, “We continue to have conversations with Charlotte to understand their needs, and we’ll see what our members can support.” They could have uttered something not provocative.
Instead, Moore poured cold water — or gasoline — on the central thesis of Charlotte’s entire transit plan. Charlotte’s big idea is really to reshape the environment and change the way people get around.
Charlotte wants to give people more choices besides automobiles and encourage walking, biking and riding transit, with the goal of creating a healthier, more equitable and more sustainable future. Last year, the City Council adopted a goal for 2040 of having “half of our commute trips” made by “means other than a single-occupancy vehicle, through walking, biking and taking transit.”
Contrast that with Moore, who said that transportation funding “needs to be focused on not trying to transform people’s habits and [have] them do something different. If you put more bike lanes in, that doesn’t mean more people are going to ride their bikes to work — that’s not going to happen. You need to build and expand roads because we are driving cars.”
That sounds like a big gulf, not two sides working together to forge a political breakthrough.
For its part, the city says it still wants a chance to explain to legislative leaders the rationale for its approach.
Asked this morning on WFAE’s “Charlotte Talks” about Moore’s comments, Lyles heaped praise on the speaker, saying she has “so much respect” for him and his “leadership and thoughtfulness.” She said she is open to his ideas. She continued:
What I hope is he will give us a chance during the next several weeks to talk about Charlotte and how we plan to address mobility for the region and ask him for his feedback. I heard what he said, but I think that we can show him some data that says this is where we’re trying to go.
There are other reasons why some political insiders are doubting there will be a sales tax referendum anytime soon. The first is the status of the Charlotte Area Transit System. Its bus drivers last week authorized a strike. Its buses, streetcar and light rail line are chronically unreliable. It has no permanent CEO at the moment, and its ridership has fallen even since the pandemic. A consultant’s report last month recommended a structural overhaul. CATS has many capable and devoted workers, but would voters entrust that agency right now with billions of new tax dollars?
In addition, this year, other political issues are rising to the forefront in Mecklenburg County and could distract from a transit tax push. The City Council is considering placing four-year terms on the ballot. There’s likely to be a multibillion-dollar school bond referendum. If Lyles doesn’t run for re-election, there could be a spirited mayoral primary in September and a runoff in October.
Time for a different approach?
If there’s an impasse on this comprehensive, $13.5 billion transit plan, is that it? Are we consigned to existing levels of transit and bike lanes?
No. As Steve Harrison of WFAE pointed out a year ago, the city has other options. They are smaller and less ambitious than the Charlotte Moves proposal but more than the status quo. For instance, the city could raise property taxes to fund the broken backbone of the city’s transit system, its buses. Charlotte could ask the county for a ¼ cent sales tax referendum — authority the county retains after a 2019 vote for money for arts and parks failed. It would have raised about $50 million a year, enough to double the amount of dedicated money Charlotte is spending on sidewalks, for example.
Recall that the city paid for the Gold Line streetcar in two phases, without a special tax, at a cost of about $200 million that was split with the federal government.
Of course, a new light rail line is far more expensive. Those modest means wouldn’t pay for the Silver Line, the biggest part of the current plan, with an estimated price tag of more than $8 billion.
For something of that size, Charlotte leaders would need help from Raleigh, as well as federal funding. If Raleigh leaders want roads and Charlotte leaders want transit, is there some deal they could strike?
In the last year or so, Charlotte leaders have made renewed noises about working more closely with surrounding counties on a regional transit vision. Those counties tend to be led by Republicans, who might have the ear of legislative leaders more than Charlotte Democrats. Republican Charlotte City Council member Ed Driggs, who chairs the council’s transportation committee, says he thinks there needs to be a “credible regional plan,” perhaps with a multi-county regional authority, like other big cities have.
Leaders in those outlying counties — which are growing faster than Mecklenburg — are regularly advocating for road construction projects, many of which have been delayed because of state funding shortfalls. Would business leaders and suburban Republican politicians accept a deal in which surrounding counties get additional road money and Mecklenburg gets money for transit? What if that were overseen by a regional panel, with a name like the “Charlotte Metropolitan Transportation Authority,” or one with an even catchier acronym? Would legislative leaders bless such an arrangement?
Is anybody asking these kinds of questions? Or are we still stuck in the mindset that the only way to get this done is the all-or-nothing approach outlined in 2020 … an approach that seems to be going nowhere?
In 2021, the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance — the same place where Moore and Berger appeared this week — released a report attempting to quantify “the cost of doing nothing.” It said the region stands to miss out on more than 100,000 jobs and $28 billion in economic output by 2050 “if congestion isn’t addressed.”
A lot of people would like to see it addressed. Let’s bury the old plan and figure out a new way.
Tony Mecia is executive editor of The Charlotte Ledger. Reach him at email@example.com.
Related Transit Time articles:
“A Plan B for Charlotte’s transit expansion” (Jan. 27, 2022)
“Shrinking Charlotte’s transit ambitions” (Sept. 8, 2022)
“Settle in for a longer transit push” (Sept. 21, 2021)
Understanding the possibility of CATS bus driver strike
by Ely Portillo, WFAE
With the possibility of hundreds of Charlotte Area Transit System drivers walking off the job next month, there are a lot of questions about what riders should expect. Here’s what you need to know to understand how we got here, and what’s likely to come next.
What are the issues holding up a contract?
Pay and benefits are two big ones. Charlotte bus drivers rejected a contract in September that would have included a nearly 11% raise, but would also reduce the number of days drivers can take off without a reason. The current contract pays first-year bus drivers about $18.80 an hour. Under the proposal, new drivers would make $20.80 an hour.
Other issues reportedly include health insurance premiums, retirement benefits and driver safety, especially in the wake of last year’s road rage shooting death of bus driver Ethan Rivera.
So how close is an actual strike?
CATS drivers voted to authorize a strike on Saturday, Jan. 7. Under federal law, there’s a mandatory 30-day cooling-off period. And the local union must file paperwork about the strike with the federal government. So, the most likely date for any strike to begin would be the second week in February.
How can CATS drivers strike — I thought public employees couldn’t unionize in North Carolina?
Could CATS actually operate core bus routes during a strike?
How big a deal would a strike be?
Bicyclist dies after hit by car: A 30-year-old woman died after being hit by a car as she rode her bike in the Plaza-Midwood neighborhood. Kristie Nicole Crowder was riding an electric bicycle near the 1400 block of The Plaza when she was struck. She was a 2015 UNC Charlotte graduate who worked as a capital markets analyst and photographer. (WFAE)
CATS bus strike plans: If CATS bus drivers strike, the city would eliminate all express bus routes and prioritize the 13 routes that have the most passengers, CATS said this week. Drivers voted last weekend to authorize a strike, which could not occur until early February at the earliest. (WFAE)
Did somebody forward you this newsletter and you need to sign up? You can do that here:
Other affiliated Charlotte newsletters and podcasts that might interest you: