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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 news and analysis about it here. Transit Time is produced in partnership by WFAE and The Charlotte Ledger. Subscribe here.

Charlotte's transit plan is in flux

Courtesy of The Charlotte Ledger

Two months ago, the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance touted a study from N.C. State that said Charlotte’s $13.5 billion transportation plan is critical to the region’s economic future.

The study focused on the area’s increasing traffic congestion and said the metro area would lose $28 billion in economic output and up to 126,000 jobs by 2050 if “congestion isn’t addressed.”

Officials from the Business Alliance talked gravely about the perils of “doing nothing” to solve congestion. The group’s CEO, Janet LaBar, mentioned Atlanta as the city Charlotte did want to become. “Congestion relief” appeared to be the Business Alliance’s playbook for building support for the tax.

But on Wednesday, at a City Council retreat in Winston-Salem, council member Larken Egleston unintentionally debunked that line of thinking. His message: Don’t tell people the transit plan will solve congestion, because it won’t. He said:

For as often as the phrase ‘We don’t want to become Atlanta’ is brought up when talking about Charlotte, I think we need to dig one layer beneath that statement to see what they mean. Because I think there are probably people, when they say that, (they) are saying that we don’t want to have this immense amount of congestion you see when you drive through Atlanta. But I don’t think any of what we’re proposing will eliminate the congestion of Charlotte.

Egleston continued:

It will simply give people an option to get out of that congestion if they choose to use that option. So I hope that the way we write our polling and do our marketing we are not actively creating or passively not attacking the notion that people might falsely have that what we’re doing might somehow free up the road for them to drive on.

Mayor Vi Lyles then spoke: “I think everyone gets that,” she said, “… that we should we not be promising we will free up roads or be able to build roads.”

Egleston’s comments are important because he supports the transit plan. He is a Democrat who is running for an at-large seat. Political observers believe he would like to become mayor after Lyles steps down.

In an interview, Egleston said he wasn’t talking specifically about the Business Alliance strategy. He just said he wants the city to be realistic about what a transit plan can and can’t do.

His comments, however, raise the question: If the city can’t sell the plan on congestion relief, what is Plan B?

Still tinkering with the plan

The discussion this week at the council’s strategy retreat also showed that the city’s transportation plan is very much a work in progress. City staff continues adjusting financial estimates, spending plans and strategy for pushing forward the idea that the Charlotte region needs more transit, greenways, sidewalks and bike lanes. Discussions are ongoing, and it all seems to be evolving around the reality that the straightforward strategy presented almost a year ago will require some adjustments. (Related Transit Time article: “Settle in for a longer transit push,” Sept. 16)

Some of the more significant pieces of news from the council’s meeting included:

  • The city is now using a more conservative growth rate for the proposed transit sales tax. Earlier this year, the city projected the proposed tax would grow by 4.4% a year. WFAE and Transit Time raised questions as to whether that is too optimistic, considering the existing half-cent sales tax for transit averaged 3.8% annual growth over its life. At Wednesday’s meeting, the city said it’s now using 3.8% as its growth estimate. (Officials did not cite Transit Time or WFAE for the assist.)
  • To accommodate the lower revenue projections, the city said it will rely on low-interest federal loans. There weren’t details about how much money the city would have to borrow and how it would pay that back.
  • City Manager Marcus Jones said the city would set aside 20% of the tax revenue for non-transit projects, such as greenways, sidewalks and bike lanes. The previous plan was to set aside 10% of the tax revenue for those projects.
  • Jones also said that if the Red Line commuter train to Lake Norman can’t be built, the northern towns could access that money for other projects. North Mecklenburg residents were told more than 20 years ago they would get the train, but Norfolk-Southern has refused to allow the Charlotte Area Transit System to use its tracks.

Council members also disagreed over the best way forward to work with other elected leaders in the Charlotte region and with legislators in Raleigh. Charlotte would prefer to have leaders from other counties involved in and supporting the eventual plan, and legislators would need to approve any attempt to raise the sales tax to help pay for it.

One group led by Tariq Bokhari and Braxton Winston suggested that the council take a more formal role by devising a communications strategy in a council committee, but a majority shot down that idea, saying the plan isn’t fully developed and that it’s better to have regional group, like the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance, lead those conversations.

That led Bokhari to proclaim on Twitter that the council had “pulled a sketchy fast one” by favoring a process that favored “back rooms and powers that be.”

Leaders of the General Assembly — including House Speaker Tim Moore of Cleveland County, whose support would be critical to any attempt to raise sales taxes — replied to their Republican colleague and said they are watching the process and favor more interaction.

But a majority of council members seemed to believe it’s premature to have discussions on plans before elements of the plan are more settled.

Council member Malcolm Graham said: “We need to make sure we know who’s on first, who’s on second, what are we trying to communicate, what are we trying to do? … I’m not sure we’re ready to communicate anything, other than, ‘Hey, something is baking. Once we know all the ingredients, we want to share it with you.’ I’m not sure we’re there yet.”

Transit Time is produced in partnership by WFAE and The Charlotte Ledger. Subscribe here.

Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.