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Charlotte might tweak its transit plan to spend sooner on roads — but City Council is still divided

road construction.JPG
Erin Keever
Highway construction outside uptown Charlotte.

The Charlotte City Council on Monday discussed a proposal to tweak the city’s $13.5 billion transportation plan in hopes of winning support from Republicans in Raleigh.

Under the new proposal, the city would spend money on roads immediately. Transit projects, like the city's new light rail line, would possibly be delayed.

The change was in response to comments made by Republican House Speaker Tim Moore earlier this month after a forum at the Charlotte Business Alliance. He blasted Charlotte’s transit plan, saying it would spend too much money on light rail, buses and bike lanes. He said since almost everyone drives, the city should focus on improving roads.

Moore’s approval is critical because Republicans in Raleigh must give the OK for Charlotte to place a one-penny sales tax on the ballot — without which, Charlotte doesn't have a way to pay for its plans.

In response, City Manager Marcus Jones on Monday said one option is to “frontload” the transit plan by spending money on road projects in the early years.

But the new city plan would only shift dollars around, with almost all of the money — roughly 80% — still eventually going to transit.

Republican City Council member Tariq Bokhari said that’s not good enough.

“The General Assembly will smell out a fast one this quick,” said Bokhari, snapping his fingers. “And it will be the same conversation we’ve had.”

City of Charlotte
Tariq Bokhari

The city has been discussing the transit plan for nearly three years, but hasn’t formally asked the General Assembly to move forward with the tax increase.

Other council members, like Democrat Braxton Winston, appeared to be OK with the slightly changed plan.

He fully supports Charlotte’s vision to get cars off the roads. The city's plans call for shifting half of all trips to something besides a single-occupancy vehicle. He said major road projects like a planned widening of Interstate 85 in Gaston County won’t work unless people can also use transit.

“You’re going to have to get people off I-85 between Billy Graham here in Charlotte,” Winston said.

Council members discussed the plan at their annual strategy session at the Marriott hotel near UNC Charlotte.

At the start of the discussion, Jones said he was hoping for some firm direction about what to do next.

But after three hours of debate, council members didn’t vote on any specific proposal.

Democrats Victoria Watlington and LaWana Mayfield said they weren’t ready to support the plan yet. Republican Ed Driggs said he was “bewildered” by the city’s presentation.

The most significant part of the transit plan is the $8 billion Silver Line light rail, which would connect Matthews to the airport. There would also be money to expand the bus system, and to build greenways, sidewalks and bike lanes.

Democrat Dimple Ajmera said the city needs more detail about how much it would spend on each item. She said it would be helpful if the city could tell voters it would build a certain number of miles of sidewalk in a certain amount of time.

City Council took no action on the transit plan Monday —meaning that, for now at least, the plan remains in limbo.

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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.