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Politics

City Council Debates Billion-Dollar Transit Plan And New Sales Tax

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Flickr/railsnroots
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Charlotte's proposed $8 to $12 billion transit plan would build a new light rail line from Matthews to the airport.

The City Council on Monday night discussed an ambitious transportation plan that could cost between $8 and $12 billion – and members asked whether it makes sense to ask voters in November to approve a new sales tax to pay for it.

This plan would be a sequel to the city’s original transit plan, which was approved 22 years ago. That’s when county voters approved a half-cent sales tax to build light rail and transit across the county. But that money is gone — and the transit plan isn’t finished.

The biggest item would be a light rail line from Matthews to the airport, but there would also be more money for buses, greenways, sidewalks and roads.

Former mayor Harvey Gantt, who led the task force, says the city already has a vision. It just needs money.

“Plans don’t need to sit on shelves,” he said. “They need to be activated.”

The federal government and the state would pay for half, and a new countywide penny sales tax would raise between $4 and $6 billion.

When the original sales tax was approved in 1998, the debate was all about getting from one place to the next.

But in 2020, council members spent much of their time talking about how the plan would impact affordable housing and economic mobility. Council member Victoria Watlington is concerned about the light rail leading to gentrification.

“How are we ensuring that these communities that will be impacted by a potential rail line will still be standing?” she said.

Council members were generally on board. The two Republican members, however, raised questions.

Tariq Bokhari asked whether light rail will be obsolete in a decade due to more people using ride-share apps and the possibility that self-driving cars catch on.

Ed Driggs asked whether it made sense to ask voters to approve a penny sales tax increase in November 2021, considering the economic devastation caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

“People should appreciate the amount of money we’re talking about represents up to $15,000 for every single household in Charlotte,” he said. “Granted, it’s payable over 30 years and there will be more households sharing in the costs later. But it is a very big, very big commitment.”

To get the penny sales tax on the ballot, the Republican-controlled General Assembly must say yes.

Council member Braxton Winston and others asked if the city has a Plan B if it can’t get a sales tax approved. Gantt says the sales tax is the best bet.

“We did look at license fees, we looked at automobile taxes,” he said. “And none of those options raised the kinds of dollars that would not have a city council going back every two or three years to try and figure out how to support that construction that’s going on over that 10 to 12 years.”

Council member Malcolm Graham said he wants to improve the bus service.

“It still pains me that when I rode the bus at Johnson C. Smith University – the No. 7 – going to work at Eastland Mall,” he said. “That the ride time is still the same some 25 years later.”

The city council will hold a public hearing in early January on the plan – and possible sales tax.

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