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Despite opposition, Charlotte moves ahead with massive transit plan

Despite opposition, Charlotte moves ahead with massive transit plan

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CHARLOTTE — City leaders face a bumpy road as they seek support for a "transformational" transit and mobility plan, partially paid for with a one-cent sales tax that could go before Mecklenburg County voters in November.

During a recent two-day retreat, the Charlotte City Council authorized City Manager Marcus Jones to move ahead with a sweeping transit framework intended to keep pace with the region's exploding growth.

The Silver Line — expected to run from Matthews to north of uptown, and westward past the airport to Gaston County — is a key focal point. But the plan also calls for expansive greenways, bicycle networks and a bus system to keep the region interconnected, according to a report from the Charlotte Moves Task Force, headed by former Mayor Harvey Gantt.

Initial estimates show the program would cost $8-12 billion, half funded locally. But it's still too early to know how officials will allocate funding across the slate of transit projects.

The City Council is expected to adopt a funding strategy by April, followed by a comprehensive mobility and infrastructure plan in June or July. It fits into a broader plan that city planners are also fine-tuning, which envisions the future of economic development, affordable housing, zoning policies and other infrastructure needs in Charlotte — with an emphasis on equitable growth.

"We are in a very beginning phase of our Charlotte Moves conversations, where overall, council agrees that we do need to invest in our infrastructure," City Council member Dimple Ajmera said Tuesday. "The challenge is: How, and the details?"

Support is lacking throughout the region, as the coronavirus pandemic batters the local economy and causes unprecedented hardship for some of Mecklenburg's most vulnerable residents. Opponents say the city's approach has been too narrow, leaving out crucial perspectives from surrounding towns and counties.

"This isn't a weighted vote for Charlotte," Mayor Vi Lyles said during the retreat, signaling the plan needs support from Mecklenburg's six towns.

When the council approved the task force's recommendations Monday afternoon, Lyles reminded Jones: "You've heard the urgency behind this request."

Worry in north Mecklenburg

County commissioners recently criticized the timing of the tax, saying it's difficult to contemplate the hefty and enduring investment as COVID-19 upends how people live, work and commute to office jobs in uptown Charlotte. The sales tax would exclude groceries and medications.

Commissioner Elaine Powell has called her north Mecklenburg district a "mobility desert."

"I have been hearing from a lot of people, and I wanted to say I still haven't heard any enthusiasm for the proposed plan," Powell, vice chair of the commissioners, said during a recent board meeting. "I hope that they are looking at it and tweaking it to make it better and a countywide plan, not just a citywide plan."

In a recent letter to Lyles, the mayors of Cornelius, Davidson and Huntersville listed their concerns about the proposed tax, including a "lack of a guarantee for tangible projects for north Mecklenburg, in particular a light rail project (Red Line) connecting north Mecklenburg to Charlotte and the rest of the CATS system."

"North Mecklenburg communities' citizens have contributed sales tax for over 20 years to the CATS system, but most capital has been spent in Charlotte," Mayors Woody Washam, Rusty Knox and John Aneralla wrote in their letter, which was shared with the Observer.

Mecklenburg already has one of the highest sales tax rates in the state, at 7.25%. But Charlotte's peer cities across the country are much higher, including Seattle at 10.10% and Nashville at 9.25%.

Future investment

Not everyone on the Charlotte City Council is on board yet, either.

City Council member Braxton Winston urged his colleagues to ensure all residents have a chance to weigh in — before city planners lock into certain decisions and repeat historical mistakes that harmed marginalized communities.

"Staff members can only work off the policies that we give," Winston said. "And if we're not specific, we're going to leave people out."

City Council member Tariq Bokhari said Charlotte is working against a tight timeline, with little room for error to finalize the transit recommendations and educate Mecklenburg voters before November. City officials also need to secure legislative approval to put the referendum — currently dubbed a "one cent for mobility" tax — on the ballot.

"The task force report to me is a very robust description of how much money to ask for and how to sell that ask to the public," Bokhari said Monday. "It is not a plan for what to do with the money. I don't have any idea how much money goes to light rail versus roads versus buses."

It's also difficult to anticipate which investments will make the most impact years from now, Bokhari said, depending if smart transit options — including autonomous vehicles and aerial taxis — become ubiquitous.

Before the pandemic, almost 77% of Charlotteans traveled to work, with less than 5% biking, walking or taking public transit, said Taiwo Jaiyeoba, assistant city manager and planning director. With a transit plan, he said Charlotte can "rebalance" those modes — and steer away from a car-centric city.

City Council member Renee Johnson said Charlotte must also pursue temporary strategies before light rail and other options become available.

"We have a struggle that we are gridlocked now. We are already overcrowded," Johnson said. "We're looking at a $12-billion referendum when we're looking at areas that don't have buses today."

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