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Transit Time is a weekly newsletter for Charlotte people who leave the house. Cars, buses, light rail, bikes, scooters ... if you use it to get around the city, you can read about it here. Transit Time is produced in partnership among WFAE, The Charlotte Ledger and the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute. Subscribe here.

Settle In For A Longer Charlotte Transit Push

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Courtesy Charlotte Ledger
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The city is continuing to develop plans for the Lynx Silver Line between Matthews and Belmont, although the timeline for winning funding for the project is uncertain.

If you were thinking that we might know soon whether Charlotte is going to get new light rail lines, think again.

More than a year since the effort started toward a $13.5 billion transit plan, Charlotte leaders are saying that they have no timetable for making it happen — which underscores the scope and complexity of the push for new transit options.

Earlier this year, officials had hoped that a sales tax referendum to help fund the plan could be on the ballot this November, but that plan was scrapped when census delays postponed city elections until next spring. Now, leaders say they need the extra time to work with neighboring counties and to make the case to legislators for a referendum that under the most optimistic scenario would be held in November 2022 — although nobody is publicly committing to that timeframe.

“I think, truthfully, we’ve taken a step back,” says Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt, who chairs the City Council’s transportation, planning and environment committee. “We’ve got to coordinate with all the other groups that are thinking the same thing.”

Mostly, Eiselt said, Charlotte needs to work with partners in surrounding counties to understand their priorities, which could include, say, express bus corridors and connections to rural areas. The Charlotte region has several multi-county transportation panels of elected officials that coordinate transit plans, and Eiselt said they need to be listened to and involved before asking Raleigh for a referendum.

“It doesn’t start with ‘Let’s go ask for a sales tax,’” she said. “It starts with pulling the stakeholders together and saying, ‘What do we want?’ and ‘What are we asking for?’ and ‘Who is we?’ … I guess conceivably we could look at it for 2022. There’s still time, without having to commit ourselves to that. We, Charlotte, won’t necessarily be the one who’s making that call. It should be the group.”

Original Timeframe Too Ambitious?

That’s a different approach than the Charlotte Moves Task Force, a 25-person committee chaired by former Mayor Harvey Gantt, recommended in December of last year. It proposed that the City Council approve elements of the transit plan in a series of votes before July 2021 and commit to “a ‘One Cent for Mobility’ referendum in the Fall of 2021.”

That didn’t happen. In hindsight, the timetable might have been too aggressive to implement what leaders are calling the largest economic development project in state history. Instead of debating transit, the biggest local political fight this spring was over the 2040 Comprehensive Plan, which outlines city growth policies and passed on a narrow 6-5 vote.

Around the same time, the transit proposal ran into opposition in Mecklenburg’s northern towns, which were skeptical that they would enjoy any benefits from a tax increase for transit, since Norfolk Southern hasn’t granted permission to use its tracks for a commuter rail line.

A city consultant told council members in June that the transit plan would cost more ($13.5 billion) and take longer to complete (until 2041) than the Gantt panel envisioned. Transit projects would make up about 86% of the cost, with the balance going to greenways, bike networks and sidewalks. The transit consultants assumed Charlotte would start collecting new sales tax revenue in 2023.

The slower timetable could also spring from the political reality that it might be challenging for Charlotte to win permission for a referendum from the General Assembly. Traditionally, Charlotte has perceived that the rural-dominated legislature is skeptical of helping with urban issues. So there’s that.

But there’s also a beneath-the-surface political divide that wasn’t there the last time Charlotte won approval for a transit referendum, in the summer of 1997. Then, the city was led by a Republican mayor, Pat McCrory, and there was a bipartisan effort to lobby the Democratic-controlled General Assembly for a sales tax referendum. It worked, the half-cent referendum passed with 58% of the vote, and the money helped build the Lynx Blue Line, which opened in 2007.

The politics are different this year. Now, local politicians are overwhelmingly Democrats, who hold nine of 11 City Council seats and 16 of 17 of Mecklenburg’s seats in the General Assembly. But the legislature is run by Republicans, who control the agenda and whose support for a sales tax referendum is critical.

Although local Republicans are so outnumbered that they hold little power over anything, they might have an outsized voice over the fate of getting a referendum through the legislature. That’s because legislative leaders will naturally seek their opinions before working with Democrats, some of whom regularly slam Republican leaders in Raleigh on other issues.

The City Council’s two Republicans, Ed Driggs and Tariq Bokhari, haven’t said they oppose the transit plan or the tax increases to pay for it. But they don’t seem to be leading a charge to make it happen, either. At a June meeting, Driggs said the council needs more time to consider its options and that the current process is “a bit of a rush.” He also raised the issue of whether the city is looking into forming a multi-county transit authority, which could make a sales tax referendum more palatable to Republican legislators because it would take power away from Charlotte and give some to neighboring Republican-controlled counties. At the time, Bokhari said the transit plan “as designed by the people who delivered it is dead in the water” because “the General Assembly and the towns will not have the trust necessary as long as we keep treating our partners like pawns.”

The only Republican member of the General Assembly from Mecklenburg County — Rep. John Bradford, who represents Cornelius and Huntersville — didn’t return a call from Transit Time.

Asked if legislative leaders have heard from Charlotte about the sales tax referendum since conversations earlier this year, a spokesman for N.C. Senate leader Phil Berger said that discussion seems to have gone silent: “This definitely hasn’t been a full court press,” he said.

Getting Local Buy-In

Instead, people leading the effort locally seem to be working to build a case for the transit plan. The Charlotte Regional Business Alliance, for example, commissioned a study by N.C. State researchers that touted the economic advantages of a transit plan. It said the Charlotte region stands to lose $28 billion in economic output and 126,000 jobs by 2050 “if congestion isn’t addressed.”

A traditional approach to lobbying would involve developing a message, sharing it with key stakeholders and achieving buy-in from a variety of local business, civic and elected leaders, who could then express their support to state legislators. That process takes time. The Alliance hired public affairs consultants Paul Shumaker and Morgan Jackson, and Moore & Van Allen is leading lobbying efforts.

Once the current session of the General Assembly ends, legislators won’t convene again until the spring. Charlotte could then seek permission for a referendum in the fall, when turnout is expected to be high because of next year’s U.S. Senate race. There has been no decision on that timeline.

“There’s not been any explicit determination of when it will be,” says council member Larken Egleston, the vice chair of the council’s transportation committee. “It’s not entirely up to us to say.”

Political insiders have been weighing the pros and cons of having a sales tax referendum on a crowded ballot and what, if any, effect it might have on what is expected to be a closely fought Senate race — and vice versa. They also note that Shumaker, one of the Alliance’s consultants, happens to be close to the campaign of McCrory, who could also be on the ballot.

In politics, and in transit, not everything always goes off on schedule.

“It’s been two steps forward, one step back,” Eiselt said. “But that’s still progress.”

Transit Time is produced in partnership among WFAE, The Charlotte Ledger and the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute. Subscribe here. Other affiliated Charlotte newsletters and podcasts include: The Charlotte Ledger Business Newsletter and Ways of Life newsletter (obituaries), available from The Charlotte Ledger; WFAE's Inside Politics newsletter; and The UNC Charlotte Urban Institute newsletter and the Future Charlotte podcast from the Urban Institute.