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McCrory Warns: Streetcar Could Risk Charlotte's Light Rail

File Photo
Charlotte Observer

Gov. Pat McCrory told two city of Charlotte staff members this week that state money for the light-rail extension to UNC Charlotte could be at risk if the city builds a controversial streetcar, according to a memo sent Thursday.

Without the N.C. Department of Transportation’s $250 million grant, the $1.1 billion Lynx Blue Line extension can’t be built to University City.

As Charlotte mayor, McCrory, a Republican, championed light rail, which was one of his signature accomplishments. But he vehemently disagrees with using city property tax dollars to build a streetcar, and used the meeting in Raleigh to relay a message to City Council, according to the memo.

McCrory on Monday met with Charlotte City Attorney Bob Hagemann and Deputy City Manager Ron Kimble about state funding for renovations at Bank of America Stadium. The streetcar was also discussed.

In a memo to Mayor Anthony Foxx and council members, Hagemann and Kimble said: “He said to us that if the streetcar project were to go forward as currently proposed, future State funding for the Blue Line Extension could be at risk. When we pointed out that, we, as staff, do not have a vote on the matter, the Governor responded by noting that our bosses do, and that by telling us he would assume that we will relay this point to them.”

As governor, McCrory appointed Anthony Tata as secretary of transportation. North Carolina governors can wield significant influence over the DOT.

Foxx, a Democrat who champions the streetcar, said Thursday he was “outraged” over what he considers a threat.

“No one knows better than Gov. McCrory what the telephone number to the mayor’s office is,” Foxx said. “It’s particularly alarming that he would choose to deliver messages to city staff, particularly messages that contain threats.”

Foxx added that McCrory should focus on state issues.

“He is governor of the state, and there are a host of issues – tax reform, health care. Why the governor would choose to place focus on a transit project, particularly one contained in a transit plan that he voted to implement makes no sense,” Foxx said.

McCrory spokesman Chris Walker said the governor wasn’t threatening Charlotte officials. He said they needed to be aware that building the streetcar with property taxes could send the wrong message to Raleigh.

“During these tough budget times, the governor has continually informed leaders in Charlotte that the streetcar makes it more difficult during each continuing budget cycle to get support in the legislature for continued matching funds of the light-rail line when the city is exhibiting that they have additional money for other projects outside the approved process through the MTC.

“The governor is a strong supporter of the light-rail line and will continue to be.”

The governor’s input in the city’s streetcar could be at odds with his recent position on whether the state should approve a proposed increase in the city’s prepared food and beverage tax. That money would pay for renovations at Bank of America Stadium.

When asked about whether the legislature should approve a local tax hike for the Panthers, a McCrory press secretary said the governor “believes that local leaders should make decisions on local issues – the same philosophy he employed as mayor of Charlotte.”

Difference over funding

The streetcar has been in the Charlotte Area Transit System’s long-term capital plan since 2007. McCrory supported that plan.

But in 2009, when CATS said it couldn’t pay all of the proposed transit projects with the half-cent sales tax for mass transit, city officials decided they would assume responsibility for the streetcar. McCrory, in his last year as mayor, objected. He said the city shouldn’t go outside the transit tax to pay for it.

(McCrory, however, had supported a plan to build a commuter train to Lake Norman by using property taxes that would be generated from the line’s construction.)

That year, McCrory vetoed a City Council plan to pay for an engineering study for the line. But Foxx led an effort to successfully overturn his veto.

Foxx and McCrory weren’t friends then. They remain rivals.

Capital plan stalled

Controversy over the streetcar was the main reason a nearly $1 billion capital plan collapsed in June, when council members and Foxx couldn’t agree on a budget.

The capital plan included $119 million to extend a starter streetcar line. With the new money, the city’s streetcar line would operate from Johnson C. Smith University, through uptown and past Presbyterian Hospital.

When the budget deal collapsed in June, the streetcar was seen as the main sticking point.

At the time, some council members believed that McCrory – who was running for governor – had used his political influence to persuade some council members to reject the capital plan.

“It makes me wonder about what happened to the (Capital Improvement Program),” said Democratic council member David Howard, who is a streetcar supporter.

Howard said he believes the governor exerted political influence to persuade council members to reject the capital plan.

Said Foxx: “This memo certainly confirms a threat that’s been hanging out there in the shadows for several months.”

Democratic council member Claire Fallon had supported the streetcar during straw votes on the budget in the spring. In June, during the final budget vote, she rejected the capital plan and the streetcar.

She said she never heard from McCrory or his supporters to vote against the plan to kill the streetcar.

“It’s not right to threaten anyone over anything,” Fallon said.

She said she would be “devastated” if the light-rail extension were lost. Fallon lives in the University City area.

“I guess there is little money to go around,” Fallon said. “Evidently (McCrory) doesn’t feel like we are spending it the right way.”

Council members are scheduled to discuss the capital plan again Thursday at their annual retreat.