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Charlotte Mayor Calls For 2021 Referendum On Transit

A LYNX Blue Line train pulls away from J.W. Clay Station on North Tryon Street in this 2018 file photo.
David Boraks
Charlotte's Lynx Blue Line opened in 2007. Now officials want to ask voters to approve a big expansion of the city bus and train network.

Around the country, voters have approved multibillion-dollar plans to build or expand transit systems. Mayor Vi Lyles wants to put a similar question on the ballot in Charlotte next year.

Lyles said a major investment in transportation is needed to keep attracting jobs and to address inequalities in the cost and time it takes for people to move around the region.

"What I would like to see is a potential referendum in 2021. I don't think we can afford to wait," Lyles said on a panel hosted by the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance on Tuesday.

Lyles did not put a dollar figure on it, but officials have suggested a price tag of $8-12 billion. That would build out a series of rail lines, including the Silver Line light rail from Matthews to the airport. It also would include improvements in the bus network as well as greenways and bike paths.

It's also not clear yet what it might cost taxpayers. Legislative approval would be needed to increase Mecklenburg County's current transit sales tax to cover about half the cost. The rest would need to come from state and federal sources.

Lyles said she's encouraged by the success of transit bond votes elsewhere around the country. "I think that the positive results that we've seen in other cities like Austin, San Antonio, Seattle, L.A., they encourage us to think that we can do this, too," she said.

Lyles also pointed to Charlotte voters' overwhelming approval of a $103 million bond referendum last month for transit, bridges, streets and sidewalks and trails.

A referendum next year would be considerably larger than that — echoing a trend in other cities. Austin voters last month approved a nearly $7.5 billion plan for a new transit system as well as biking and walking infrastructure. And in Los Angeles four years ago, 70% of voters voted in favor of a whopping $120 billion plan for new transit lines and other transportation projects over the next 40 years.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti was also on Tuesday's panel. Besides being a mayor, he also chairs Accelerator for America, which helps mayors nationwide with major initiatives such as transportation. He said cities need to build regional support for big plans like these.

"You really need to build a coalition. I (spent) five years paying a lot of respect to the region," Garcetti said. "You have to listen. ... In the more suburban areas, there might be a different need on transportation than what's perceived in the urban areas. ... You really need to have something for everybody."

The idea of a Charlotte referendum comes as a task force of local leaders called Charlotte Moves wraps up work this week on a new strategic mobility plan. Chair and former mayor Harvey Gantt, who led Tuesday's panel, said the idea is to create a "transformational network" that incorporates trains, buses, and walking and biking paths.

Meanwhile, other current regional planning efforts are also underway, such as the 12-countyConnect Beyond initiative. That foresees a network of buses and trains that links Charlotte and smaller cities within 50 miles.

"The whole issue is are we ready in this region to take the steps necessary to make a major investment in infrastructure?" he asked.

The task force meets for the final time Thursday and Gantt says it will present its final report later this month.

Meanwhile, the environmental group Sustain Charlotte is leading a separate effort to build support for transit. It's planning a "Transit Is the Future" forum Wednesday, where it plans to announce the formation of a new Charlotte Regional Transportation Coalition.

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David Boraks previously covered climate change and the environment for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.