Charlotte Continues Fight Over Transit Funding

Charlotte excluded from North Carolina Legislature’s bill allowing for increased sales taxes

Because of the economic crisis, Charlotte has been losing tax revenue for its transit system, which is dependent on a half-cent sales tax to maintain operations and construct new lines. CATS, the city’s transit agency, now predicts a $242 252 million shortfall over the next fifteen ten years, forcing it to make hard decisions about what lines to build and which to cut. But now there’s talk in the North Carolina Legislature of allowing further sales tax increases in counties around the state to pay for transit – with the exception of Mecklenburg County, that is, Charlotte and its suburbs, which want to add another 1/2 cent sales tax to their existing taxes.

If the state agrees to the law, counties will be able to propose referendums to their citizenry; if a majority agree, counties can increase their local sales taxes by a 1/2 cent. This measure is most likely to help the Triangle area, including the cities of Durham and Raleigh, which have been desperately pushing for a stable funding source for transit and which have been hoping – yet not finding the means to pay – for a rail transit system over the last twenty years.

But State Representative Dan Clodfelter, who represents a part of Charlotte and chairs the Senate Finance Committee, won’t agree to allowing Mecklenburg to increase taxes on itself unless the city agrees to prioritize a light rail line to the southeast section of the city and a streetcar through Uptown, two areas he represents directly. The transit system’s current plans prioritize an extension of the existing south light rail line to the northeast and the construction of a new north commuter rail line to a number of small towns. Mr. Clodfelter is keeping the city hostage unless he gets what he wants built.

Obviously, the transit system, run by a board representing all of the county’s towns, not just Charlotte, will not agree to such a bait-and-switch, and Mr. Clodfelter’s actions may ultimately put the whole system in danger by depriving it of the funds it needs. The problem with the state system, in which localities have limited power to decide if and when to tax themselves and must get approval from the state to get anything done, is just this: powerful members of the state assemblies, thinking they’re acting on behalf of those that elected them, actually end up causing trouble by making a controversy into an epic battle.

Mr. Clodfelter should recognize that he doens’t have to blackmail the city to get what he wants; if he allowed the county to increase its sales tax by another 1/2 cent without saying a word, the transit system would have enough money to ensure that his priorities, already in the planning stage and marked for construction, get built.

5 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Kate

    If you look at a map of Charlotte and it’s suburbs this is significant because UNCC is located in the NE.

    And I’m not sure why he wants a streetcar system through Uptown. It’s pretty walkable.

  • Rick

    Correction to a few errors in this post…The shortfall is $252 million over 10 years, not 242 over 15. CATS is losing money faster than they can count. The current half cent tax primarily covers buses – not trains. When the tax was up for repeal, the most viable financial option for the transit system was to stop building trains all together and to focus on buses. Now, those inner cty mostly minority riders who are most dependent on buses are suffering at the expense of building more trains to the mostly white suburbs. Starting in March, 6 bus routes are being cut while the train capital fund goes untouched. Mr Clodfelter is one of those most directly responsible for this situation as he led the charge against using the existing tax for buses only. Also, most Charlotteans do not want an additional transit tax at this time. The county is facing massive budget shortfalls across the board and other taxes will be raised before this is put on the ballot even if it becomes available. And to the last commenter who asks why build a streetcar. You don’t understand the race-based politics of Charlotte. The local Black Political Caucus was promised the streetcar if they supported the transit tax during the repeal effort two years ago. This was widely reported in the local papers. Mr Clodfelter’s move is nothing more than political payback to attempt to keep that promise. Chicago pay-for-play politics has nothing on Charlotte.

  • Rick – thanks for the corrections.

    I would like to point out, however, that though poor minority riders may be dependent on buses, they also benefit greatly from the construction of light rail and streetcars. Better transit helps everyone.

  • Rick

    Yonah, I’m not so sure about how good the streetcar is for the locals around that line. The proposed streetcar along Beatties Ford Rd is already serviced by the #7 bus route. That route is the most used in the whole system. The street car will not provide faster service or more frequent service as it will be sitting in the same traffic as today’s buses. It will not provide extensive development around the stops because most are already built up and there isn’t much available land. This is per CATS’s own recent study. Any development that does occur will result in gentrification which negatively affects the current residents. This has been the case around some of the current existing LYNX stops. As an example of how rail hurts those that are dependent on buses, the recent budget cuts to save $4 million dollars resulted in $100k being cut from LYNX rail service and most of the rest came from bus service cuts. This was done explicitely by CATS to avoid dipping into the capital fund which primarily supports rail expansion. To say rail always helps the poor simply because it is a form of transit is simply not true. Rail does a lot of things, but helping the poor is not one of them.

  • Rick

    Now the shortfall is $269 million. Like I said earlier, CATS is falling behind faster than they can count.

    CATS Sales Tax Tumbles in December

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