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Charlotte scrambles to placate Mecklenburg, towns in new transit agreement

Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles (center) was upset that a dispute between Mecklenburg County and the city of Charlotte went public Tuesday.
City of Charlotte
Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles (center) was upset that a dispute between Mecklenburg County and the city of Charlotte went public Tuesday.

The Charlotte City Council on Tuesday voted 9-1 to approve a new power-sharing agreement with a countywide body, the Metropolitan Transit Commission, to determine how decisions are made about transit funding and leadership.

The vote came after the city made last-minute concessions to Mecklenburg County and the six towns represented on the MTC.

Hours before council members met, Mecklenburg County sent out an unusual news release, saying it was going to oppose the new transit governing agreement.

Officials said the city was refusing to commit money from a possible one-cent sales tax increase to help maintain so-called "orphan roads." Those roads — like Grand Palisades Parkway in Steele Creek — are outside of the city and the towns and no government is spending money to maintain them.

With the clock ticking before the City Council vote, the city agreed in a separate document to do just that, in order to win the support of the county and towns.

After seeing the amended agreement, County Manager Dena Diorio in an email Tuesday told commissioners that she supported the new deal — although she criticized how City Manager Marcus Jones handled the negotiating.

Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles was upset the disagreement had gone public.

“You know as a member of the Metropolitan Transit Commission I was really disappointed that the county, or whomever that group was that created that document, made a statement instead of making a phone call,” she said during the council meeting.

In addition to the concession on orphan roads, the agreement gives the county and towns more say in hiring the new leader of the Charlotte Area Transit System and an expanded role in shaping the CATS budget. That's something the MTC has sought as CATS pursues a $13 billion transit expansion, since the transit agency is funded by a countywide half-cent sales tax and a countywide tax would also fund the expansion. Although the MTC has always technically held some oversight power since CATS was founded, members complained that it had become a rubber stamp for the city.

The agreement also gives the MTC $500,000 a year to spend on outside consultants, which they can use for studies and evaluations of the agency.

City Council member Malcolm Graham objected to that provision and tried unsuccessfully to have it removed.

The MTC is made up of representatives from the city of Charlotte, Mecklenburg County and the six county towns. It was created after voters approved a half-cent sales tax increase for transit in 1998.

But last year MTC members said they felt ignored by the city and wanted more power in shaping how CATS operates. They were upset that CATS hadn’t informed them about a 2022 derailment of a Lynx Blue Line train and other ongoing issues.

The MTC is scheduled to vote on the new governing agreement Wednesday.

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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.