Charlotte leaders call for transit funding, but vote on sales tax still uncertain
Transit advocates and city leaders are calling for approval of a proposed 1-cent sales tax for buses and transit in Mecklenburg County, even though it's still not clear when it might go to voters.
The tax would raise the city's half of a proposed $13.5 billion expansion of the regional transportation system to improve mobility and support the city's fight to slow climate change. It would include buses, rail lines, roads and bicycle and pedestrian trails. The rest could come from state and federal funds.
At a press conference hosted by Sustain Charlotte on Friday, Mayor Vi Lyles offered only a short answer when asked about the status of the tax: "Let me use the word negotiation."
She did not elaborate and her office did not immediately respond to a request for more information. But city officials must convince the legislature to approve a referendum on the proposed tax.
Voters also may take some convincing. A poll last spring found a narrow majority of voters support the idea. Opponents don't like the idea of a tax, oppose public transit or want to see more money spent on roads. Some north Mecklenburg leaders oppose it because they say the area has not benefited from the existing transit tax.
"We've just got to get the message out there and get people to understand that if we provide efficient clean and safe transportation modes as an option, especially as we begin to understand what climate change is going to do to our community, I think we can see that we'll get some place on funding this plan," Lyles said.
The press conference coincided with the fifth annual national Transit Equity Day and the birthday of civil rights activist Rosa Parks. It included the release of a new national report calling for increased investment in transit and public transit workers.
The report, from the National Campaign for Transit Justice, says "inadequate investments in our public transit workforce have resulted in service cuts in cities, towns, and states across the country. Investments in the public transit workforce are urgently needed to boost economic opportunity and racial equity in our communities."
Other speakers Friday echoed that theme, saying increased transit funding would expand access to transportation for people of color and lower incomes. The Rev. Janet Garner-Mullins called the current situation "transport poverty."
"In every region, in every city, people of color are more likely to travel by public transportation than anyone else," she said. "Public transportation is a civil right."
One speaker addressed the virtual press conference from a Charlotte Area Transit System bus. Brian Williams, who moved to Charlotte recently from New York, said buses are not reliable enough as he tries to get to and from his shopping mall job. Service ends too early at night or doesn't go where he needs, he said. And sometimes, it's hard to get back to the homeless shelter where he lives, so he ends up spending nights on the street.
"It's really hard for people like myself who work in the mall to get around," Williams said
That's an example of why the region needs to improve transit equity, said Mayor pro-tem Julie Eiselt.
"We don't talk about the cost of not having a good transportation system. We only talk about the cost of investing in it," Eiselt said. "But as Mr. Williams shows us, people are losing out on work hours, they're losing out on jobs if you don't have a bus system that is efficient and predictable."
The press conference followed a report this week that transportation is now the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in North Carolina — eclipsing energy generation.
Shannon Binns, the founder and executive director of Sustain Charlotte, said providing a range of transportation options is "a critical strategy to combating climate change."
"Due to our heavy reliance on cars and trucks, transportation is the largest source of climate pollution nationally, and locally, comprising 40% of our greenhouse gas emissions in Charlotte," he said. "The more people who use U.S. public transit instead of driving, the less harm we do to the climate, and thereby future generations."