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Charlotte Business Taskforce Decides that Roads – Not Transit – Deserve More Funding

The North Carolina city, already incapable of funding its long-term transit plan, will likely not see more revenues dedicated to public transportation

The influential Committee of 21, a sort of local Rotary Club for discussing transportation issues in the Charlotte area, told the city council yesterday that any new transportation funding in the region should be dedicated to roads, not transit. Ned Curran, chair of the committee, said “I don’t want to be anti-transitMy company supported (the transit sales tax). We were against repeal, both with our voice and with our money. But where are we going to get money for roads?”  The committee’s statements reflect the mood of the city’s business community and may portend a less-than-ideal future for mass transit in North Carolina’s biggest city.

The argument goes something like this: Charlotte approved a 1/2¢ sales tax for transit back in 1998, and the business community helped work successfully against a repeal vote in 2007. Now, though, whatever the needs of the transit system, roads need to be better funded, because the region’s highways are not keeping up with demand. The development community – focused mostly on building single-family houses and office parks entirely designed for the auto-dependent – is adamant in its push for more roads.

Mayor Pat McCrory, who is retiring this year after seven terms as a tireless proponent of transit in the city, seems to concur, arguing that he wouldn’t support a new half-cent sales tax for transit. This is in spite of the fact that the recession has caused tax revenues to drop precipitously; the transit agency will not be able to complete all of the lines initially planned for the system. North Carolina’s State House recently approved a measure that would allow other regions in the state to raise their taxes for transit to Charlotte’s levels, but did not leave room for Charlotte to increase its revenues any more.

The committee’s proposal for a new half-cent sales tax for road construction is antithetical to the idea that Charlotte can reinvent itself into a compact, transit-oriented, and walkable city – a goal for which the city’s planners have been working since 1998. It also ignores the basic fact that the state gets hundreds of millions of dollars every year from the federal government specifically for new roads construction. In order for the city to qualify for federal transit New Start matching grants for new light rail or busway construction, on the other hand, the city must contribute a significant share of the costs, not true for roads. The argument in favor of increasing roads funding also ignores the fact that the city systematically underfunded public transportation for decades while investing heavily in roads throughout; doesn’t transit deserve to represent at least half of transportation costs now? Adding a new tax for roads – in addition to a vehicle registration fee and tolls also proposed by the committee to go towards highways – would tilt the balance back towards automobiles disastrously.

Who is represented on the Committee of 21? The chair, Mr. Curran, just happens to be the head of The Bissell Companies, a real estate group whose investments have been – surprise, surprise – primarily in car-oriented offices, hotels, and golf clubs. Why might he have an interest in promoting more roads? Though several of the other members include people who have offices in Uptown Charlotte (one or two also live at least near downtown), the fact remains that this is a business group organized by the Charlotte Chamber that represents people who are for the most part completely wedded to their cars and who, unsurprisingly, want more highways. To think that this group, which has so much influence over decisions made by the very business-oriented Charlotte city council, will come out against more transit funding, saddens me because it indicates that the advances made so far by this southern city may be ephemeral.

That said, no decisions have yet been made, and there’s little guarantee that the Committee of 21’s suggested 1/2¢ sales tax for roads will gain any traction – especially since it would need approval from the state legislature to go anywhere. But the seeming lack of local political support for a financial lift-up for the transit system is depressing. Looks like Charlotte really will have to decide between two competing transit proposals, because it’s certainly not going to be able to afford both at this rate…

7 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • In the U.S. there is a disconnect between what people say they want (transit) and what gets implemented. A good question to ask the task force: what if x dollars for transit saved x + 1 dollars in road maintenance?

  • Rick

    Ok, a few corrections and clarifications here about the people on the Committee of 21 and what’s going on in Charlotte.

    The Committee of 21 also includes Pat Mumford the former City Councilman who led that anti-repeal crowd in 2007 and repeatedly looked people in the eye, myself included, told them that the 2030 transit plan would not go outside the current 1/2 cent transit tax. He has since gotten a cushy full-time job with the City making six figures. It’s seen as his payback for misleading people repeatedly about the costs of transit and the ability of CATS to pay for their plan.

    Anthony Fox is currently running as the Democrat in the race. to replace McCrory. He’s pro transit. So is his republican opponent by the way.

    2 of the other developers on the list, Crossland and Pappas have developed some of the TODs near the existing light rail line. They’re pro-transit.

    The former Davidson Mayor is pro-transit.

    I know a couple of the others personally and they are pro transit.

    Your premise that this is an anti-transit group is flat out wrong.

    The reason the 1/2 cent additional tax is going nowhere has to do with the fact that our current line was 100% over initial estimates. The extension of that line is now $400m over its initial estimate.

    The transit tax repeal effort 2 years ago failed, but it did paint the politicians into a box. They all had to promise to live within their current means if the tax was kept.

    At a meeting just yesterday in Charlotte, 100+ tax protesters showed up at a midday meeting to try to prevent the county commission from voting to even seek permission from the state to go after an additional half cent for transit. 6 of 9 members spoke against it. Three of those six commissioners represent areas with large minority populations who were promised that bus service wouldn’t suffer if the tax was kept two years ago. Just last month, millions of dollars in cuts to bus service were made but the train experience hardly any cuts. Those commissioners and their very pro mass-transit, but bus riding constituents now know they were misled as well.

    Those are the reasons why the added 1/2 cent for Mecklenburg may be DOA. It’s the result of train dishonesty in the past and not some road building conspiracy in the present.

  • Rick –
    I never said that this was some kind of “conspiracy.” All I’m arguing is the obvious – that pushing for a 1/2¢ sales tax for roads, and not transit, is clearly highways-oriented. While it would be nice to argue that this is about “living within one’s means,” the truth is that this has nothing to do with the situation.

    Interstate 485, the under-construction outer loop around Charlotte, has cost far more than initial estimates, as has almost every road project in the region over the past decade. If this were about “living within means,” why would these committee members think that it was acceptable to reward the roads construction industry, which has promised far more than it can provide, with a dedicated tax?

    Is the recession pertinent to this discussion? I think so. It’s easy to somehow place the blame on mismanagement for the loss of bus service a month ago, but we know that it’s an inevitable result of the recession – the whole reason why the second 1/2¢ tax for transit was demanded in the first place. It’s hard for me to accept the argument that since the 1/2¢ tax didn’t fulfill all of its promises, transit no longer deserves more funds. I call that an excuse to be roads-oriented.

    You call these committee members pro-transit. But what truly pro-transit person willingness throws off suggestions for improved transit funding and instead pushes for more roads construction? This is no conspiracy – it’s simply quite obvious that these people aren’t interested in contributing enough to the overall amelioration of transit in the Queen City.

  • Rick

    You just exposed your bias there Yonah…a pro-transit person could see there are wider issues at play in the community. The glassy-eyed true-believing transit zealot can not.

    Charlotte just had layoffs of hundreds of school personnel with more to come, needs 150 more police, has a school space shortage, and does have a $12 billion road need. Try getting a politician to raise taxes for something a wide swath of the public sees as a toy train set when those real needs also exist.

    The “roads-did-it-too” argument in relation to cost overruns is essentially the two-wrongs-make-a-right argument. I’ll let you have that one if you really want it. Roads are used by everyone – including transit bus riders. They are seen as a necessity. Trains are used by a tiny fraction of the population, and are seen as a “want”, not a “need”. The vast majority of the population is always going to go for needed roads – as they should. Think of train spending as your “entertainment budget”. You might cut that and do a little cost control before you stop going to the grocery. That’s what I mean by “living within your means.”

    As for your math and the economy being behind Charlotte’s problem…that’s a canard too. The transit tax is only/b> expected to be $270 million below its initial projections over the next decade due to the economy. The plan for the next 2 lines alone is well over $500 million over their initial projections right now and that doesn’t even count the $400 million streetcar that was originally to be built with the transit tax that will now be built with property tax.

    They’d be hunting for more money regardless.

  • Perhaps I am a “transit zealot” – but that is because transit has wide-ranging advantages for communities such as Charlotte that make its adequate funding essential. I am not suggesting that “two wrongs make a right,” but rather that it is ridiculous to argue that roads deserve funding and transit does not when one of your arguments against transit applies equally to roads.

    I think that evidence – namely, the vast majority that voted against the transit tax repeal in 2007 – shows that people in the city do not see light rail in Charlotte as “a toy train set.”

  • Rick

    Yonah, Read the post I put on the Miami repeal piece. It outlined just a small portion of the scare tactics and promises that were made then broken during the Charlotte repeal debate. Those are the reasons the transit tax was kept by the magin it was. That’s a whole different animal than asking for expanded taxes. The main argument by the local pro-tax people during the repeal was for keeping the original tax was to keep buses running, not to build trains. That promise was broken in favor of keeping money in the capital fund to build trains. This added tax is solely about trains, and shockingly, it’s not going anywhere.

    The votes and comments by 2 of the commissioners at the recent commissioners meeting who spoke out against the transit tax addtion currently under discussion are from the highest mass transit using portions of the city, but they are bus users. (Btw, so am I. I ride the bus almost every weekday.) Those commissioners and their constituents realize that the train is another broken promise to them by the local power structure to get more resources for the wealthy areas of town. I know you won’t like the sound of that, but that’s is how it’s perceived.

  • Rick

    Just to give you an idea of how tentative the Charlotte politicians are being with further transit funding, tonight City Council delayed for the second time even voting on whether or not to lobby the sate for permission to even ask the public for more transit taxes.

    After the financial fiasco that has become the Charlotte 2030 Transit Plan, they fear a backlash from the voters for even thinking about raising transit taxes.

    Protesters came out once again to stop the voting. They’re waiting until they can get a vote when nobody is paying attention it would appear. That’s pretty sad.

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