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Transit Advocates Push For More Emergency Aid, Long-Term Funding

Two trains pass near 7th Street Station uptown.
David Boraks
Two Lynx Blue Line trains pass in uptown. Charlotte Area Transit System wants to expand the number of train lines and buses in the system.

Advocates for public transportation are calling on Congress to approve emergency aid for local public transit systems nationwide and to boost long-term funding for transit, including an expanded bus and train network around Charlotte.

In Charlotte and other cities, public transportation ridership has decreased and revenues have fallen sharply amid the coronavirus pandemic.

U.S. Rep. Alma Adams of Charlotte

At an online forum hosted by Sustain Charlotte Wednesday, Congresswoman Alma Adams and other local leaders joined a nationwide call for passage of another stimulus bill that includes transit funding.

"One of the most important takeaways from this virus is that a robust public transportation system is critical to the well-being of our community and region," Adams said.

The CARES Act did provide money to replace lost revenues and pay for virus-related costs such as cleaning buses and trains. Charlotte Area Transit System got about $57 million, which helped get CATS through the first few months of the pandemic, according to CEO John Lewis.

But as the pandemic drags on and ridership remains low, many systems are suffering. The DC Metro system, for example, has proposed several thousand layoffs and eliminating weekend service cutsto cope with a $500 million deficit.

The House has already approved a bill that includes $32 billion in relief for local transit systems. Adams said now it's up to the Republican-controlled Senate to do its part by passing the measure.

Long-Term Needs

Advocates also want Congress to approve at least $105 billion in new funding over the next five years to help build or expand transit systems nationwide, once coronavirus vaccines become widespread and the pandemic eases. That money would be part of a five-year transportation reauthorization bill. Current rules dedicate 80% of that funding to roads. Leaders nationwide are also calling for the nation to rethink funding levels for transit.

Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt
Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt

Charlotte Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt joined other transit advocates Wednesday in calling for more state and federal funding for local transit systems. She also said cooperation at all levels will be needed.

"We need good transit. And we can't possibly do it without putting together a regional partnership. And that means all of the towns working together with our state leadership and our federal leadership," Eiselt said.

City leaders want to expand Charlotte Area Transit System's bus and train network - including the Silver Line light rail from Matthews to uptown to the airport. It would cost an estimated $8 billion to $12 billion. About half of that would need to come from state and federal funds.

The local share would likely come from increasing the Mecklenburg County sales tax for transit. That would require state legislative approval.

Davidson Mayor Rusty Knox agreed with Eiselt on the need for regional cooperation.

"The dynamic thought pattern has to change about how we move around and what's important," he said. "The more we expand our transit system, the better our quality of life is gonna be, and that's for all of us."

The Charlotte Moves task force, which has been studying the idea for two years, will hold its final meeting Thursday afternoon.

Then it goes to the city council. Mayor Vi Lyles and other local leaders want to put a bond referendum on the ballot in 2021 to help pay the city's share of expanding the network.

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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.