The transit plan that could shape Charlotte’s future — if we pay for it

The transit plan that could shape Charlotte’s future — if we pay for it

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

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Imagine riding your bike from Uptown to the Whitewater Center, all on a greenway. Or zipping from Matthews to the airport, all on light rail. Or a modern bus network where you’ll never have to wait more than 15 minutes at a stop.

It could happen for you, dear Charlotte resident of the future, if you just come up with $8 to $12 billion.

Why it matters: Today’s infrastructure won’t support the 385,000 or so additional residents who are expected to move to Charlotte by 2040. But the need for improvements comes alongside two transformative events for transportation: the sunset of a pandemic that may forever change the way we work, and the sunrise for a generation of electric and self-driving vehicles.

  • There’s no question we need to invest. But now? And if now, how?

The Charlotte MOVES task force, led by former mayor Harvey Gantt and made up of 23 civically engaged minds, spent seven months examining those questions last year. They came up with a proposal for a “transformational mobility network” that would fund:

  • 90 miles of new rapid-transit corridors (light rail and commuter rail)
  • 140 miles of bus route enhancements
  • 115 new miles of greenways
  • 75 miles of on-street bike lanes
  • 60 miles of road improvements

Yes, but: To pay for it, the task force recommended raising the county sales tax by 1 cent.

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  • To raise the sales tax, voters would have to approve a referendum.
  • To even get a referendum on the November ballot, the local governments need the blessing of the state legislature, a conservative-led body that will have reasonable concerns about raising taxes during an economic downturn.

Barring something unexpected (please, not this year), the mobility plan will be the most important local issue of 2021. It’s big and complicated, so we’re here to break it down for you:

A CATS bus on 36th Street in NoDa

A CATS bus on 36th Street in NoDa

The cost

Total estimate: $8 billion to $12 billion

Who pays for it? Half would come from local government, the other half from state and federal grants.

How the local funding would break down: The city already has a recurring transportation bond, approved by voters last year, that brings in about $50 million a year, or about $1.5 billion over 30 years.

  • To raise the rest of the local portion, the task force recommended hiking the local sales tax by a cent (this would exclude groceries and medication).
  • If that doesn’t happen — or if the legislature only approves, say, a half-cent — they’d look to raise property taxes.
  • A one-cent sales tax increase would bring in $220 million per year, or $6.6 billion over 30 years.
  • The task force argues that Charlotte’s current sales tax of 7.25% is lower than peer communities such as Austin (8.25%), Denver (8.41%), and Nashville (9.25%).

What about federal funding? One reason Charlotte leaders are pushing so hard for this right now is that the new Biden administration has proposed a $2 trillion infrastructure package.

  • Local governments nationwide will line up for it, and the feds will likely “look to those who have ducks in a row,” mayor pro tem Julie Eiselt told us last month.

The need

It’s not just about future growth, leaders say. It’s about Charlotte’s dismal economic mobility rating. If you’ve lived here a week or two you’ve surely heard that we ranked 50th out of 50 in terms of mobility among major U.S. cities.

The city is segregated in so many ways, with the bulk of the wealth — and property tax base — in what’s known as the wedge. If you think of Charlotte like a clock, the wedge would be the hours of 4 to 6. The rest of the city is in what’s known as the arc.

    By the numbers: The average household income in the wedge is $78,226. In the arc, it’s $49,705.

    • Almost 13,000 households do not have access to a car. Most of those are in the arc.
    • In a car-dependent city (76.6% of workers drive to work alone) there’s often a direct tie between owning a vehicle and ability to provide for your family.

    The city’s housing policies of the past century — from redlining in the 1930s and ’40s, to urban renewal of the 1950s and ’60s, to highway construction that spliced Black neighborhoods in the 1960s and ’70s — have also created distinct racial segregation, with the bulk of the Black and brown population in the arc, while white people make up most of the wedge.

    Some leaders believe a transportation plan could help desegregate: “This is going to have a generational impact. This is how you do it,” council member Braxton Winston told us recently. “We have to decide: What kind of Charlotte are we?”

    Gantt, who was elected Charlotte’s first Black mayor in 1983, says the “mobility network” is about connecting people more than just creating transportation options. As Charlotte grows and the wealth concentrates close to center city, low- and middle-income workers struggle to find housing near to their jobs.

    • If the transit network is built out, 90% of jobs would be within a half-mile of it, as would nearly 70% of housing, the task force said.
    • “Such an investment will actually open up opportunities for a lot of people,” city planning director Taiwo Jaiyeoba told us.

    The plan

    Rail: The bulk of the billions is tied up in the Silver Line, an east-west light-rail line that would take people from Matthews to the airport. (Expected cost: $3 billion.) The plan also calls for a 25-mile commuter rail to the northern Charlotte suburbs.

    • Jaiyeoba tells us rail will “be the backbone upon which we build these others.” But any good rail system needs a speedy bus system to help people who don’t live within walking distance.

      Buses: Mayor Vi Lyles has talked about modernizing the city’s bus system since the day she took office in 2017.

      The task force’s plan would create high-speed bus routes to the suburbs and “priority corridors” where the wait for a bus would be no longer than 15 minutes.

      Greenways: Here’s a new term for you: bike and pedestrian “superhighways.”

      • The report calls for adding 115 miles of greenways, including a Mooresville to Charlotte trail.

      The reality

      It’s a nice wish list, right? Here are the hurdles:

      1. The pandemic. Is now really the right time to raise taxes? The region shed 156,000 jobs in the second quarter of last year alone, and 23% of the workforce is considered “economically vulnerable,” according to the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance.
      2. The legislature. It’s not just Republicans who hesitate. State Sen. Natasha Marcus, a Democrat whose district includes three north Mecklenburg towns, told us she’s leaning against supporting the plan because her constituents won’t support it.
        • “Our county and our region need a comprehensive transportation plan,” Marcus said. “We need a good system that moves people around that’s not based on cars. I’m a little torn.”
      3. Voters. If it gets on the ballot, it’ll have plenty of opposition in Mecklenburg County. Some folks in Cornelius and Huntersville still fume over supporting the half-cent 1998 transportation bond that brought them hardly any benefits.
        • “There is zero enthusiasm for this plan in District 1,” county commissioner Elaine Powell, who represents Davidson, Cornelius, and Huntersville, said in a public meeting. “It’s offensive to so many people who live in my district who believed they would have a light rail more than 20 years ago.”

        Also, the future of transportation is unclear. Consider this: In 2020, Tesla became more valuable than the seven other top traditional carmakers combined.

        Council members Ed Driggs and Tariq Bokhari question whether it’s wise to spend billions on fixed light rail in an era when scientists continue to churn out the next iteration of electric and self-driving cars. “Private companies are flying into outer space,” Bokhari said at a recent council meeting.

        Consultant James Barbaresso told council that we’re still 30 or 35 years away from when autonomous vehicles take over, UNC Charlotte’s Urban Institute’s Ely Portillo writes.

        The current status

        “If you’re on a 100-mile journey, this task force has only gone 5 to 10 miles,” Jaiyeoba told council at its strategy session this month.

        At that meeting, council voted to send the task force proposal to city manager Marcus Jones, who will examine the funding strategy and come up with guidance for the legislature.

        The next steps

        Jones will develop the strategy and funding framework for the legislature to consider. Then it’s politics. The N.C. General Assembly has for years had a contentious relationship with Charlotte’s local government over issues like control of the airport and HB2.

        But Lyles has worked to rebuild that bridge, often to the disdain of her own Democratic colleagues, especially when she announced support of the Republican National Convention.

        This transportation plan may be Lyles’ long game, though. She intends to promote “the benefits of regionalism” in her conversations with state leaders, she told us recently.

        • Some Republican legislators in the region have said they’d be open to listening to the plan. Rep. John Torbett, for instance, told CBJ that he has a good relationship with Lyles. “She sees a need on the horizon and she’s trying to take steps that will get her there,” he said.
        • “Lawmakers in Raleigh are being asked to allow the people to vote on whether or not they’re willing to tax themselves,” Lyles recently told us. “That is, I think, the most basic premise of government.”

        1 history lesson to go…

        You know the LYNX Blue Line? It opened in 2007, but leaders started talking about it in … the late 1980s. And it didn’t gain momentum until the late 1990s, when the city and county took up discussions on a $1 billion transportation network investment. That process followed a similar path:

        • Republican mayor Pat McCrory publicly announced his desire to raise the sales tax by a half-cent in December 1997, then became its most vocal supporter — much like Lyles is now.
        • The public discussed it in the spring.
        • The county approved it for the ballot in summer.
        • It had plenty of opposition, including a group called the Citizens for Effective Government, who called the plan a “$1 billion lie.”
        • Voters still passed it in November 1998, 58%-42%.

        “I am so proud,” McCrory told the Observer on election night. “Charlotte and Mecklenburg County have sent a strong signal to the rest of the nation — and especially to the rest of the state — that there is a serious concern about transportation, congestion and the environment.”

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