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Is Charlotte’s transit governing board a rubber stamp? Plus: Looking at how the NC GOP stays in power

Gold Line Streetcar
David Boraks
/
WFAE
Passengers waiting at the Gold Line streetcar stop on Trade Street near the Charlotte Hornets' arena.

The Charlotte Area Transit System is governed — in theory — by the Metropolitan Transit Commission.

The phrase in theory is critical.

CATS has four years of MTC meeting minutes online. I read them all.

The big takeaway: Over that time, the MTC has never voted against what CATS has proposed. In fact, it hasn’t come close.

Former Huntersville Mayor John Aneralla, who left the MTC last year, appears to be the only member to have voted no on anything since at least 2019. He said the group’s voting members — most of whom are Mecklenburg mayors — don’t feel confident enough to challenge what CATS tells them.

“They are supposed to be in charge, but they don’t act like it,” he said.

Ron Tober, who led CATS from 1997 to 2008, said he can’t remember the MTC collectively ever saying no.

That deference was on full display this week when the MTC unanimously approved a CATS plan to rebuild the main bus station underground. CATS and the city want to build a new mixed-use tower on the site, and officials have said placing the bus terminal underground will help turn Brevard Street into a “festival district.”

The plan is controversial.

Should the city place bus passengers — who are overwhelmingly poor and Black and Latino — in an underground space?

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CATS has said the new bus terminal will be state-of-the-art, with more amenities and more security.

But leading up the vote, a handful of people questioned the plan such as Tober, the former CATS chief executive; former Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt; and the pro-transit group Sustain Charlotte.

During the MTC meeting, two people spoke in favor of the idea. The first was a member of the Charlotte Transit Advisory Group (who is a non-voting member of the MTC). The second was Cornelius Mayor and MTC member Woody Washam, who said it could lead to beneficial public-private partnerships.

People sitting around tables
City of Charlotte
/
Livestream
The Metropolitan Transit Commission meeting last week. The CATS oversight board always sides with CATS.

Then came the doubts.

“Air quality is going to be the main concern,” said Matthews Mayor John Higdon, an MTC member. “And we’ve all been to cities and countries across the world where you have been in a study garage with diesel smoke spilling in your face and that’s a pretty miserable experience. There will have to be great mitigation.”

Huntersville Mayor Melinda Bales said, “You are going into a darker place, with the fumes … that’s not what any of us want. Those utilizing that space will also demand (something better).”

Krissy Oechslin, a non-voting MTC member who represents the advisory Transit Services Advisory Committee, said four members of her group liked the plan. But others had concerns.

“Some of the criticisms have been that you are hiding bus riders away,” she said. “And they tend to be lower income and riders of color and you are hiding them from the world. It’s a little dramatic, but people think that.”

Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles, who supports the underground station, said people on the City Council had similar concerns but she said it will work out. She pointed to Washington, D.C., which she said has an underground bus terminal that’s a success.

It’s unclear what she meant. A spokesperson for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority said he’s not aware of an underground bus station in its system.

Despite those reservations, the underground bus station plan passed unanimously.

Higdon, who warned about dirty air, said in an interview later he thinks CATS will have electric buses by the time the new station opens.

When asked why the MTC always sides with CATS staff, he said he’s sure he’s voted against things during his three years in the organization.

When I told him there is no record of that, he said that he may have confused the MTC with his service on the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization, which mostly focuses on roads.

“(CATS officials) are the experts,” he said. “We tend to defer to them.”

Davidson Mayor and MTC member Rusty Knox said he studied the bus station extensively, even researching a grant the city received in the 1980s to help plan for what is now the main bus station uptown.

“I spent a lot of time on this,” he said.

The MTC’s unwillingness to go against transit officials is surprising since Charlotte’s transit system is not operating smoothly.

WBTV has detailed numerous operational problems with the system. WFAE has written about frequent streetcar cancellations and how CATS has lost more bus riders than any other large transit system since 2014.

More on GOP strength in fast-growing counties

Late last year, Lisa Worf and I did a series on why North Carolina Democrats keep losing statewide federal races. The first story looked at Brunswick County on the coast, whose population has surged due to an influx of retirees (many of them conservative.) The story noted that Ted Budd won the state’s 10 fastest-growing counties — and by slightly bigger margins than Donald Trump won them in 2016.

This summed up the trend:

In the 2000 election, Brunswick County was a mostly insignificant part of George W. Bush’s victory in North Carolina. He defeated Al Gore in Brunswick by 2,300 votes.

In 2020, Donald Trump won Brunswick by 22,500 votes, cleaning up with 61.9%.

In 2022, despite a much lower turnout because it was a non-presidential election, Budd won Brunswick by 18,226 votes, or 61.4%.

Budd won 79 of North Carolina’s 100 counties. Only seven of those counties gave Budd more net votes than Brunswick.

@RepTedBudd
/
Twitter
Rep. Ted Budd.

I found an analysis this week by the websiteSplit Ticket, which tries to measure not only the shift in voting margin over time but also weighed against whether the population is growing or declining.

Democrats have benefited from this in places like Mecklenburg and Wake counties, which have become more Blue — with more people.

But in North Carolina it’s also true in Red counties like Johnston, Iredell and Brunswick.

The authors wrote about North Carolina: This means that Republicans are netting more and more votes out of the deep-red exurbs than ever before, even though their margin may be shrinking. This helps counter the heavy leftward swings seen in the cities and other suburban areas, and these counteracting trends are why it is more likely than not that North Carolina will be purple for the foreseeable future.

Public safety: Absent from Charlotte City Council strategy retreat

In 2015, there were 60 homicides in Charlotte. The year before, in 2014, there were 44.

Then came a surge in killings: 118 in 2020, 98 in 2021 and 106 last year.

Despite the near-doubling in murders, the City Council didn’t dive into the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department during its two-day strategy meeting this week.

Crime was not on the agenda.
Erin Keever
/
WFAE
Crime was not on the agenda.

Council members talked about topics like transit, affordable housing, tourism and the arts. Policing was not on the agenda. Chief Johnny Jennings didn’t attend.

City Council member Ed Driggs said the council had discussed public safety at a meeting in January, but it should have been part of this week’s discussion.

“It’s not sending the right message,” he said. “People are very concerned about violent crime.”


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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.