Will Charlotte’s $13.5 billion transit plan benefit those who need it most?

Will Charlotte’s $13.5 billion transit plan benefit those who need it most?

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

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Arthur Griffin has watched a lifetime of transit decisions leave Black Charlotteans behind.

Flashback: The former school board chairman, who is now in his 70s, lived in First Ward, which was once a Black neighborhood. They were forced out when he was 12, because of urban renewal.

  • Just before urban renewal, the construction of Independence Boulevard cut a “long gash” through First Ward’s neighbor, Brooklyn, “exposing blighted areas of the worst sections of the neighborhood,” according to UNC Charlotte library records. Blight was then the guise the city used to justify urban renewal in Brooklyn and surrounding areas.

That was over 60 years ago. But to Griffin and other Black leaders, it’s part of a legacy of transit projects that have hurt or failed to reach Black residents.

What’s happening: As the city grapples with how to move forward an already-beleaguered transit plan, including an expansion of light rail, leaders from the Black Political Caucus (BPC), one of the most powerful local political organizations, say they need assurances that future transportation improvements will create equity.

Of note: BPC leaders say they are fed up with a litany of broken promises from city leaders to bring affordable housing and economic development to communities of color along transit.

  • “If you keep going to a community asking for support and that community does not see where that support has generated any type of benefit, I think that’s only natural that there may be some hesitancy,” Griffin tells me.

Why it matters: Low-income people and people of color are more likely to rely on public transit, which city officials are proposing to spend billions on through their “transformational mobility network.” Local leaders want to increase the sales tax by one-cent to fund the transit investments, though it’s unclear when that proposal will be on the ballot.

But in communities across Charlotte, especially near the light rail, property values have risen rapidly, displacing the very residents who could benefit from that infrastructure. According to a 2016 study, three-quarters of the Charlotte Area Transit System’s customers are people of color, and 31% are low-income.

  • Further, a sales tax is regressive, meaning low-income households pay a greater share of their income toward it. That means they will also bear the heaviest cost for the plan.

What they’re saying: The BPC held a press conference earlier this month and demanded three conditions to consider supporting the transit plan:

  • For 4% of sales tax revenue to be dedicated to anti-displacement measures, like tax relief.
  • For 10% of housing units built within a mile of a transit station to be affordable.
  • For minority contractors to participate in building the transit network at a rate that mirrors the population of Charlotte.

    Context: The $13.5 billion transit plan calls for a new east-west light rail line, the Silver Line, to run from Matthews around Uptown and past Charlotte Douglas International Airport. It also calls for a commuter rail, the LYNX Red Line, to carry people from Uptown to the northern suburbs.

    • Leaders would also use the money for new greenways and bus system improvements.
    Charlotte Moves Task force report - rail

    Source: Charlotte Moves Task force report, city of Charlotte

    Yes, but: The big transit plan has been fraught from the start.

    • Shortly after a task force convened by Mayor Vi Lyles presented its recommendations, northern Mecklenburg towns came out in opposition.
    • That’s because the plans for the Red Line were supposed to be part of the sales tax first approved by voters in 1998, and voters feel the city hasn’t kept its promise. City officials blame railroad company Norfolk Southern, which refuses to share its tracks on the proposed route with passenger rail.
    • What’s more, the Republican-controlled North Carolina General Assembly will have to give Charlotte permission to put the sales tax increase on the ballot. And even if they agree, voters will have to approve it.

    The big picture: Considering all of those challenges, Charlotte’s leaders can’t afford to lose the support of a key constituency.

    A failed transit referendum in Nashville provides a cautionary tale.

    • In 2018, voters shot down the city’s transit plan by close to a 2-to-1 margin. Like Charlotte’s, Nashville’s plan centered on light rail.
    • A report from TransitCenter, a New York-based group that advocates for public transit, found that despite relying on their vote, the city alienated Black voters in the time leading up to the vote. There were growing concerns about displacement and affordable housing there, too.
    • The focus on light rail was not as popular among transit riders, the report found. Instead, riders preferred improvements to the bus network.

    The other side: Council members and city officials say they are receptive to the caucus’ concerns. They pointed to ongoing work, such as the creation of two new commissions around equitable development and mitigating displacement.

    • The city received a federal grant to study affordable housing along the Silver Line. It expects to present the findings to the Metropolitan Transit Commission in the next few months, according to a statement from city spokesperson Jason Schneider.

    Between the lines: Black voters in Charlotte have been a driving force in building out the city, from the expansion of the airport to school bonds, Griffin tells me.

    • For example, in 2007, voters defeated an effort to repeal the 1998 half-cent transit tax, with 70% in favor of the tax.
    • Black voters, along with newcomers to the city, were key in pushing that support to a rate even higher than when it was initially passed in 1998, an Observer analysis found.

    But wrapped up in the BPC’s support of the last transit tax was the promise of a streetcar along Beatties Ford Road by 2013, says caucus chairperson Stephanie Sneed.

    • That streetcar of course, was the expanded LYNX Gold Line, which opened in 2021 and immediately faced reliability issues that have persisted.

    Black Political Caucus chairperson Stephanie Sneed addresses the media. Photo: Danielle Chemtob/Axios

    Charlotte business leaders and elected officials just returned from a trip to Austin to learn from the city’s successful transit referendum in 2020.

    • Austin’s transit plan included a $300 million anti-displacement fund, most of which the city is still figuring out how to spend. The BPC is asking for a similar bucket of money to be set aside in Charlotte.

    It’s not a silver bullet, per our colleague at Axios Austin, Asher Price.

    His thought bubble: The city of Austin may have little real control over gentrification, according to interviews with housing experts, with home values and rentals continuing to skyrocket. The city is essentially playing catchup as a tsunami of displacement washes over it.

    Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt, who traveled to Austin, said land banking, or acquiring land along the proposed transit routes, would be the best way to ensure affordable housing is built near rail lines.

    • But, she says, the city doesn’t yet have the money from the potential sales tax or federal funding for the project to do so. Meanwhile, investors are already snapping up property along the proposed route, driving prices higher.
    • For example: in less than six months last year, real estate firms purchased three large properties near Berryhill Road and along Wilkinson Boulevard, where the Silver Line will run.

    The bottom line: Bobby Drakeford, a local developer who chairs the BPCs’ economic development committee, questions whether the Black community has received a commensurate reward for its support for projects like the Blue Line. The 19-mile light rail line reshaped places like South End into one of the most desirable submarkets in the nation.

    • “How many African American contractors, subcontractors, architects, lawyers, engineers, etc. worked on the South End project?” he told the crowd at the caucus’ press conference. “How many African American businesses are still in South End?”

    “We want more than a few companies to be part of this economic groundswell.”

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