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Mayor Vi Lyles stars in $750K commercial to support Charlotte transit tax

NRDC Action Fund
Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles says in a recent commercial that the city needs transportation options to handle newcomers moving to the city.

The Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund is spending $750,000 on a pro-transit commercial starring Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles, who says the city needs more buses and light rail, along with walking trails and bike lanes. The commercial ends with the words: “Tell Raleigh: Increase transportation funding for Charlotte.”

The NRDC Action Fund said the ad is running only in Raleigh and is meant to convince the legislature and the governor that the city needs a “smarter transportation system” and that the city’s $13.5 billion plan is the only way North Carolinians meet their climate goals.

The group said the commercial briefly ran in Charlotte by mistake.

Charlotte wants to increase its sales tax by a penny to fund the plan. The Republican-controlled General Assembly must first vote to allow the tax to be placed on a referendum. The Mecklenburg County Commission would also have to vote to place a countywide tax on the ballot.

The ad features Lyles, a Democrat. She talks about the city’s explosive growth, saying “120. That’s how many people move to the Charlotte region every single day.”

Growth in the Charlotte region slowed in the last year, according to Census estimates. Mecklenburg County added 11 people a day, and the Charlotte region added 85 people a day from July 2020 to July 2021.

The mayor then says the city needs to make sure that growth doesn’t turn into gridlock.

“That’s why we need more frequent buses, more walking trails and bike lanes, and more light-rail to get us home from work faster,” she says. “And if we commit to a smart transportation future, there’s nowhere we can’t go.”

The ad ends by urging people to tell lawmakers to increase transportation funding.

NRDC Action Fund/screenshot
The Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund is lobbying the General Assembly to support Charlotte's $13.5 transportation plan.

City leaders and the Charlotte Business Alliance have so far been reluctant to make a formal request of legislative leaders for the tax to move forward. A spokesperson for GOP Senate leader Phil Berger’s office said Tuesday that Charlotte hasn’t asked for the tax.

Charlotte’s lobbyist, Dana Fenton, said he’s not aware of a bill that’s been filled or that the city has made a formal request.

Republican state Rep. David Willis of Union County said he doesn’t think a commercial is going to sway his colleagues.

“No, don’t think it helps at all quite honest,” Willis said.

He said the Charlotte Area Transit System needs to improve its operations before he would consider a tax. The transit system has struggled with providing reliable service during the pandemic, including frequent delays on the Gold Line streetcar and having buses not show up at all.

“It’s a mess they don’t have enough staff to run the routes that are currently existing. Buses are missing hours of routes. People can’t get to work on time as it is,” he said.

The city’s plan would build the Silver Line light rail and expand the bus system. It would also pay for new greenways, bike lanes and sidewalks.

The NRDC has worked with the city to help with the transit plan in the past. It conducted a poll last year of Mecklenburg County residents about the tax, and the NRDC presentation given to the city showed strong support for the plan.

But it was later revealed that the NRDC did not release the full results, including questions and answers that did not bolster the case for the $13.5 billion plan.

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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.