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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.

What do this week's elections tell us about transit?

Transit Time photo illustration created with OpenAI/DALL-E 3
Transit Time photo illustration created with OpenAI/DALL-E 3

This article appeared first in the Transit Time newsletter, a weekly partnership of WFAE and The Charlotte Ledger. Sign up here to get it straight to your inbox.

With the 2023 municipal elections two days behind us, it’s time to start looking ahead to 2024. And since there’s already an incredible surplus of tea leaf-reading about the presidential race and the direction of national and state politics, why not take a look at another topic: transit? (This is Transit Time, after all.)

So — do the 2023 municipal elections have any hints about what the future might hold for our region’s transit ambitions? Remember, the plans for the Silver Line, Red Line and more lines up to this point hinge on winning support from voters for a 1-cent sales tax referendum that would fund about half of the $13.5 billion price tag.

There are a lot of caveats and reasons you can’t directly compare anything from this low-turnout, issue-lite, off-year election to any future transit votes. But we’re reading tea leaves here — not driving a bus or a train — so considerably less precision is required.

Turnover in mayors’ seats

Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles easily won reelection, with no serious opposition. But across the region, other mayors’ races turned out differently for incumbents — some of whom have been big voices for regional transit and transportation.

Waxhaw Mayor Ron Pappas lost handily to challenger Robert Murray III, 65% to 35%. Pappas serves as co-chair of the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization, which helps allocate hundreds of millions of dollars in Mecklenburg, Iredell and Union counties. He’s also been an advocate for greater regional coordination and funding.

In Gastonia, Mayor Walker Reid lost to Richard Franks, 37% to 34%, in a four-way race. Reid has advocated bringing the Silver Line into Gastonia as an economic development tool. And in Cornelius, incumbent Mayor Woody Washam, a longtime supporter of the Red Line commuter rail, is hanging onto a tiny 13-vote lead over challenger Denis Bilodeau.

Do these races signal any sort of opposition to regional transit? Probably not. But it’s notable that none of the three challengers ran on any sort of transit messaging. (Franks and Murray both ran campaigns calling for lower taxes and smaller local governments, while Bilodeau highlighted delayed road projects.) And in Huntersville, Christy Clark, a Democrat, won that town’s three-way mayor race.

The bigger takeaway might be the shifting cast of characters when it comes to transit, and the challenges that will come with building a durable coalition for a regional transit plan expected to take decades to build when elected officials can turn over every two years. Specific projects might be affected by the shuffling chairs as well. (New leadership in the northern towns could spell changes to the long-suffering Red Line, for example.)

An encouraging sign for transit tax?

Despite an organized campaign urging people to vote against Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ record $2.5 billion construction bond package, the bonds sailed through, winning approval 63% to 37%. That’s even though opponents highlighted the fact that repaying the bonds will require future property tax increases (estimated at $120 a year for a $400,000 home).

The takeaway? Mecklenburg County voters were plenty willing to raise their own taxes to pay for some big infrastructure spending. That might be an encouraging bit of news for transit advocates, who will have to gin up a majority of voters to approve the 1-cent sales tax increase. It’s a moot point anyway for now, as the Republican-controlled General Assembly has shown no inclination to let Charlotte put the sales tax before voters anytime soon. And of course, we include all the usual caveats: Sales tax is different from property tax, this was a low-turnout election, school bonds almost always pass with big margins, etc.

Does anyone care about transit anymore?

In the end, one of the biggest pieces of information about transit to be gleaned from this election might be its absence: There were no local debates about transportation policy, no one running as a major candidate with transit as one of their primary issues, no big campaigns centered around transit. Now, that’s in large part a function of Charlotte’s extra-sleepy elections. With no real mayor’s race, no Republicans running for City Council’s at-large seats and only a single competitive Charlotte City Council race, most local candidates didn’t have to campaign, much less try to make a compelling case for or against transit.

There were no mayoral debates, no candidate running on a pledge to build a specific piece of the transit system. Instead, there’s the continued gauzier idea that it’s important to give people options to move around the Charlotte region in ways that don’t involve cars.

Asked by reporters Tuesday about her priorities in her upcoming two-year term, Lyles mentioned affordable housing and said this about transit:

The work we’re doing around creating affordable mass transit will be something that’s important … It’s a difficult, difficult initiative for us to take on, but one that if you really look at the analytics and see the data, it’s important for us to do. … I believe that possibility is now, within [the next] two years. The absence of any sort of transit discussion or campaign highlights another issue for transit advocates.

We’re coming up on four years since the Charlotte Moves plan to build the Silver Line light rail and other transit lines was unveiled. With no real movement towards that plan, and transit largely falling out of public discussion (except for the Charlotte Area Transit System’s latest struggles, or gripes about traffic), how long can transit expansion remain a salient political topic — and does it still have a chance of gathering enough momentum to spur our region to make its biggest-ever infrastructure investment?

Ely Portillo has worked as a journalist in Charlotte for over a decade. Before joining WFAE, he worked at the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute and the Charlotte Observer.