Transit Time: A transit plan in flux

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 among The Charlotte LedgerWFAE and the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute.

From messaging to strategy to financial projections, the City Council’s discussion this week shows Charlotte’s big transit plan remains a work in progress; Congestion relief or not?

by Steve Harrison and Tony Mecia

Two months ago, the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance touted a study from N.C. State that said Charlotte’s $13.5 billion transportation plan is critical to the region’s economic future.

The study focused on the area’s increasing traffic congestion and said the metro area would lose $28 billion in economic output and up to 126,000 jobs by 2050 if “congestion isn’t addressed.”

Officials from the Business Alliance talked gravely about the perils of “doing nothing” to solve congestion. The group’s CEO, Janet LaBar, mentioned Atlanta as the city Charlotte did want to become. “Congestion relief” appeared to be the Business Alliance’s playbook for building support for the tax.

But on Wednesday, at a City Council retreat in Winston-Salem, council member Larken Egleston unintentionally debunked that line of thinking. His message: Don’t tell people the transit plan will solve congestion, because it won’t. He said:

For as often as the phrase ‘We don’t want to become Atlanta’ is brought up when talking about Charlotte, I think we need to dig one layer beneath that statement to see what they mean. Because I think there are probably people, when they say that, (they) are saying that we don’t want to have this immense amount of congestion you see when you drive through Atlanta. But I don’t think any of what we’re proposing will eliminate the congestion of Charlotte.

Egleston continued:

It will simply give people an option to get out of that congestion if they choose to use that option. So I hope that the way we write our polling and do our marketing we are not actively creating or passively not attacking the notion that people might falsely have that what we’re doing might somehow free up the road for them to drive on.

Mayor Vi Lyles then spoke: “I think everyone gets that,” she said. “…that we should we not be promising we will free up roads or be able to build roads.”

Egleston’s comments are important because he supports the transit plan. He is a Democrat who is running for an at-large seat. Political observers believe he would like to become mayor after Lyles steps down.

In an interview, Egleston said he wasn’t talking specifically about the Business Alliance strategy. He just said he wants the city to be realistic about what a transit plan can and can’t do.

His comments, however, raise the question: If the city can’t sell the plan on congestion relief, what is Plan B?

Still tinkering with the plan

The discussion this week at the council’s strategy retreat also showed that the city’s transportation plan is very much a work in progress. City staff continues adjusting financial estimates, spending plans and strategy for pushing forward the idea that the Charlotte region needs more transit, greenways, sidewalks and bike lanes. Discussions are ongoing, and it all seems to be evolving around the reality that the straightforward strategy presented almost a year ago will require some adjustments. (Related Transit Time article: “Settle in for a longer transit push,” Sept. 16)

Some of the more significant pieces of news from the council’s meeting included:

  • The city is now using a more conservative growth rate for the proposed transit sales tax. Earlier this year, the city projected the proposed tax would grow by 4.4% a year. WFAE and Transit Time raised questions as to whether that is too optimistic, considering the existing half-cent sales tax for transit averaged 3.8% annual growth over its life. At Wednesday’s meeting, the city said it’s now using 3.8% as its growth estimate. (Officials did not cite Transit Time or WFAE for the assist.)

  • To accommodate the lower revenue projections, the city said it will rely on low-interest federal loans. There weren’t details about how much money the city would have to borrow and how it would pay that back.

  • City Manager Marcus Jones said the city would set aside 20% of the tax revenue for non-transit projects, such as greenways, sidewalks and bike lanes. The previous plan was to set aside 10% of the tax revenue for those projects.

  • Jones also said that if the Red Line commuter train to Lake Norman can’t be built, the northern towns could access that money for other projects. North Mecklenburg residents were told more than 20 years ago they would get the train, but Norfolk-Southern has refused to allow the Charlotte Area Transit System to use its tracks.

Council members also disagreed over the best way forward to work with other elected leaders in the Charlotte region and with legislators in Raleigh. Charlotte would prefer to have leaders from other counties involved in and supporting the eventual plan, and legislators would need to approve any attempt to raise the sales tax to help pay for it.

One group led by Tariq Bokhari and Braxton Winston suggested that the council take a more formal role by devising a communications strategy in a council committee, but a majority shot down that idea, saying the plan isn’t fully developed and that it’s better to have regional group, like the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance, lead those conversations.

That led Bokhari to proclaim on Twitter that the council had “pulled a sketchy fast one” by favoring a process that favored “back rooms and powers that be.”

Leaders of the General Assembly — including House Speaker Tim Moore of Cleveland County, whose support would be critical to any attempt to raise sales taxes — replied to their Republican colleague and said they are watching the process and favor more interaction.

But a majority of council members seemed to believe it’s premature to have discussions on plans before elements of the plan are more settled.

Council member Malcolm Graham said: “We need to make sure we know who’s on first, who’s on second, what are we trying to communicate, what are we trying to do? … I’m not sure we’re ready to communicate anything, other than, ‘Hey, something is baking. Once we know all the ingredients, we want to share it with you.’ I’m not sure we’re there yet.”

Steve Harrison is a reporter with WFAE, Charlotte’s NPR news source. Reach him at Tony Mecia is editor of The Charlotte Ledger.

New transit ridership numbers: Light rail up, local buses down

The Charlotte Area Transit System this week also released ridership numbers for September. That’s the first full month of operation for the Gold Line streetcar.

The streetcars average 1,230 passenger trips for the average weekday. Before the pandemic, CATS estimated it would carry 4,100 passengers daily. CATS chief executive John Lewis said it may take two years to reach that goal.

The ridership report did have some good news for CATS.

Lynx Blue Line ridership was up 54% in September 2021 compared with September 2020. That’s probably due to more people working uptown, as well as college and pro football games at Bank of America Stadium.

Express bus ridership was also up.

But there was also troubling news: Local bus ridership was down 4.2% this month compared to September 2020. And overall transit ridership is still less than half of what it was in September 2019. —Steve Harrison

In brief…

  • Building a better bus system: Ely Portillo of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute examines Charlotte’s plans for beefing up bus service in the region. It’s going to be expensive — nearly $150 million in capital and operating costs. (UNC Charlotte Urban Institute)

  • Bridge-building: Work on new, bigger bridges along I-485 in southern Mecklenburg County is “moving right along,” according to The Charlotte Observer. A bridge at Elm Lane opened with an additional travel lane on Aug. 31, and a new four-lane bridge at Ballantyne Commons Parkway will replace a two-lane bridge and open next summer. (Observer, subscriber-only)

  • School bus driver hiring: Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has had nearly 100 new applications from potential bus drivers after hiking starting pay to $17.75 an hour. It takes about 52 days from application to start date unless someone is already licensed to drive a bus. (WCNC)

  • Animal crashes fall: Vehicle crashes in North Carolina involving animals fell by 8.5% last year, according to new state figures, the result of less traffic during the depths of the pandemic. Many involved deer during twilight hours in the fall. “Almost half of these animal-related crashes are occurring between October and December and at night, which is when people should be especially vigilant,” a state Transportation Department engineer said. (Spectrum News)

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