Transit Time: Settle in for a longer transit push
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Supporters of a $13.5 billion transit plan take a ‘step back’ to build support; No timeline for sales tax vote, but still possible for 2022
The city is continuing to develop plans for the Lynx Silver Line between Matthews and Belmont, although the timeline for winning funding for the project is uncertain.
by Tony Mecia
If you were thinking that we might know soon whether Charlotte is going to get new light rail lines, think again.
More than a year since the effort started toward a $13.5 billion transit plan, Charlotte leaders are saying that they have no timetable for making it happen — which underscores the scope and complexity of the push for new transit options.
Earlier this year, officials had hoped that a sales tax referendum to help fund the plan could be on the ballot this November, but that plan was scrapped when census delays postponed city elections until next spring. Now, leaders say they need the extra time to work with neighboring counties and to make the case to legislators for a referendum that under the most optimistic scenario would be held in November 2022 — although nobody is publicly committing to that timeframe.
“I think, truthfully, we’ve taken a step back,” says Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt, who chairs the City Council’s transportation, planning and environment committee. “We’ve got to coordinate with all the other groups that are thinking the same thing.”
Mostly, Eiselt said in an interview, Charlotte needs to work with partners in surrounding counties to understand their priorities, which could include, say, express bus corridors and connections to rural areas. The Charlotte region has several multi-county transportation panels of elected officials that coordinate transit plans, and Eiselt said they need to be listened to and involved before asking Raleigh for a referendum.
“It doesn’t start with ‘Let’s go ask for a sales tax,’” she said. “It starts with pulling the stakeholders together and saying, ‘What do we want?’ and ‘What are we asking for?’ and ‘Who is we?’ … I guess conceivably we could look at it for 2022. There’s still time, without having to commit ourselves to that. We, Charlotte, won’t necessarily be the one who’s making that call. It should be the group.”
Original timeframe too ambitious?
That’s a different approach than the Charlotte Moves Task Force, a 25-person committee chaired by former Mayor Harvey Gantt, recommended in December of last year. It proposed that the City Council approve elements of the transit plan in a series of votes before July 2021 and commit to “a ‘One Cent for Mobility’ referendum in the Fall of 2021.”
That didn’t happen. In hindsight, the timetable might have been too aggressive to implement what leaders are calling the largest economic development project in state history. Instead of debating transit, the biggest local political fight this spring was over the 2040 Comprehensive Plan, which outlines city growth policies and passed on a narrow 6-5 vote.
Around the same time, the transit proposal ran into opposition in Mecklenburg’s northern towns, which were skeptical that they would enjoy any benefits from a tax increase for transit, since Norfolk Southern hasn’t granted permission to use its tracks for a commuter rail line.
A city consultant told council members in June that the transit plan would cost more ($13.5 billion) and take longer to complete (until 2041) than the Gantt panel envisioned. Transit projects would make up about 86% of the cost, with the balance going to greenways, bike networks and sidewalks. The transit consultants assumed Charlotte would start collecting new sales tax revenue in 2023.
The slower timetable could also spring from the political reality that it might be challenging for Charlotte to win permission for a referendum from the General Assembly. Traditionally, Charlotte has perceived that the rural-dominated legislature is skeptical of helping with urban issues. So there’s that.
But there’s also a beneath-the-surface political divide that wasn’t there the last time Charlotte won approval for a transit referendum, in the summer of 1997. Then, the city was led by a Republican mayor, Pat McCrory, and there was a bipartisan effort to lobby the Democratic-controlled General Assembly for a sales tax referendum. It worked, the half-cent referendum passed with 58% of the vote, and the money helped build the Lynx Blue Line, which opened in 2007.
The politics are different this year. Now, local politicians are overwhelmingly Democrats, who hold nine of 11 City Council seats and 16 of 17 of Mecklenburg’s seats in the General Assembly. But the legislature is run by Republicans, who control the agenda and whose support for a sales tax referendum is critical.
Although local Republicans are so outnumbered that they hold little power over anything, they might have an outsized voice over the fate of getting a referendum through the legislature. That’s because legislative leaders will naturally seek their opinions before working with Democrats, some of whom regularly slam Republican leaders in Raleigh on other issues.
The City Council’s two Republicans, Ed Driggs and Tariq Bokhari, haven’t said they oppose the transit plan or the tax increases to pay for it. But they don’t seem to be leading a charge to make it happen, either. At a June meeting, Driggs said the council needs more time to consider its options and that the current process is “a bit of a rush.” He also raised the issue of whether the city is looking into forming a multi-county transit authority, which could make a sales tax referendum more palatable to Republican legislators because it would take power away from Charlotte and give some to neighboring Republican-controlled counties. At the time, Bokhari said the transit plan “as designed by the people who delivered it is dead in the water” because “the General Assembly and the towns will not have the trust necessary as long as we keep treating our partners like pawns.”
The only Republican member of the General Assembly from Mecklenburg County — Rep. John Bradford, who represents Cornelius and Huntersville — didn’t return a call from Transit Time.
Asked if legislative leaders have heard from Charlotte about the sales tax referendum since conversations earlier this year, a spokesman for N.C. Senate leader Phil Berger said that discussion seems to have gone silent: “This definitely hasn’t been a full court press,” he said.
Getting local buy-in
Instead, people leading the effort locally seem to be working to build a case for the transit plan. The Charlotte Regional Business Alliance, for example, commissioned a study by N.C. State researchers that touted the economic advantages of a transit plan. It said the Charlotte region stands to lose $28 billion in economic output and 126,000 jobs by 2050 “if congestion isn’t addressed.”
A traditional approach to lobbying would involve developing a message, sharing it with key stakeholders and achieving buy-in from a variety of local business, civic and elected leaders, who could then express their support to state legislators. That process takes time. The Alliance hired public affairs consultants Paul Shumaker and Morgan Jackson, and Moore & Van Allen is leading lobbying efforts.
Once the current session of the General Assembly ends, legislators won’t convene again until the spring. Charlotte could then seek permission for a referendum in the fall, when turnout is expected to be high because of next year’s U.S. Senate race. There has been no decision on that timeline.
“There’s not been any explicit determination of when it will be,” says council member Larken Egleston, the vice chair of the council’s transportation committee. “It’s not entirely up to us to say.”
Political insiders have been weighing the pros and cons of having a sales tax referendum on a crowded ballot and what, if any, effect it might have on what is expected to be a closely fought Senate race — and vice versa. They also note that Shumaker, one of the Alliance’s consultants, happens to be close to the campaign of McCrory, who could also be on the ballot.
In politics, and in transit, not everything always goes off on schedule.
“It’s been two steps forward, one step back,” Eiselt said. “But that’s still progress.”
Tony Mecia, the editor of The Charlotte Ledger, has been a journalist in Charlotte since 1997. One of his early assignments was riding the first express bus from Gastonia to uptown Charlotte in March 2001.
Regional mobility plan: Charlotte-area transit planners this week released a regional mobility plan called “Connect Beyond,” the culmination of 18 months of work studying transit-related needs in a 12-county area. The plan makes a series of recommendations on connecting rural, suburban and urban parts of the Charlotte area, such as improving land-use rules, offering more choices in getting around, improving bus networks and studying transit options in highly traveled corridors. (Connect Beyond plan)
Hearing on streetcar fares: The Gold Line streetcar is free for now, but fares are expected to be implemented in January. The cost will be $2.20 for a one-way trip. CATS is holding a hearing Wednesday at the Metropolitan Transit Commission meeting to discuss the fare and collect feedback. You can register to speak or find a link to listen here. (CATS)
Transit could be a tough sell for returning workers. Even as companies try to sort out their ever-changing return-to-office plans, some employees are spooked by public transit. That’s a key reason transit ridership was down 61% in the first quarter of 2021 compared with the same quarter in 2019. The Wall Street Journal reported: “Many workers say they are reluctant to ride subways, trains and buses into city centers, particularly when they could be in close quarters with unmasked or unvaccinated people. It’s a key reason why some are asking to continue working from home. Some people are opting to bike where they need to go, helping to fuel a boom in bicycle sales; others are planning to drive or carpool.” (Wall Street Journal)
CATS wasn’t able to boost frequency during the Panthers’ home opener: The local transit agency usually runs more frequent service to help game-day crowds navigate uptown. But CATS didn’t do so last weekend, blaming a driver and equipment shortage sparked by Covid. It’s unclear if CATS will be able to boost bus, light rail and streetcar frequency in the near future. “We too are struggling with a labor shortage and limited equipment availability. … We’re working diligently to hire more personnel as we remain committed to providing safe, efficient service.” (CATS)
Audit: NCDOT avoided overspending last year, but problems remain. The NCDOT ended up spending $2.5 billion over the last six months of 2020, or $325 million less than the agency had forecast. But an audit implemented following a 2019 cash bailout for the agency found key recommendations to control spending and forecast realistically still haven’t been implemented. “Consequently, the fact that the department had not yet exceeded its spending plan was largely due to chance,” according to the report. (Associated Press)
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