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-transit… My 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…