Feb 22, 2023 - News

Charlotte has barely tried to convince state leaders of its transit plans, records show

light rail charlotte

Photo: Katie Peralta Soloff/Axios

Charlotte needs to persuade the North Carolina General Assembly to allow it to put a referendum for a penny sales tax increase for transit on the ballot. But there’s little evidence that city officials have spoken with the state’s top legislative leaders about it.

What’s happening: Axios requested emails between both North Carolina Senate Leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore and employees with city of Charlotte email addresses since January 2022.

  • Berger’s office said there were no records responsive to our request.
  • The request to Moore returned three emails. None were related to the city’s mobility plans.

Driving the news: In January, Moore blasted Charlotte’s plan for focusing too much on rail and alternative modes of transit instead of road capacity. 

Why it matters: Charlotte’s bursting at the seams, and transportation investments haven’t kept up with the need. In response, the city wants to build new rail lines, expand its bus system, build greenways and bike lanes and more. 

  • In 2020, the city revealed a $13.5-billion transit plan. But since then, movement to execute the ambitious plan has been sluggish.
  • Under state law, voters must approve a local sales tax hike to fund transportation during an election. But Charlotte is unlikely to get a referendum on the ballot this year.

Zoom out: There’ve been a few private sector efforts to push for the sales-tax increase. The local business alliance has invested in consultants to garner support for the plan at the state level. Moore was visiting the alliance when he slammed Charlotte’s plan last month.

  • Last year, the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund ran a commercial featuring Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles in Raleigh to convince lawmakers and the governor of Charlotte’s transportation needs.

Of note: The city could also raise money through a property tax hike, but the city has said that would cost the average Charlottean more.

“There hasn’t been a lot of correspondence between the city and the legislature,” Republican council member Ed Driggs, who leads the city’s transportation committee, told Axios.

“Because it was clear to us that we needed to have a more fully developed plan in order to engage in real negotiations or discussions with them. Basically, our effort has been around trying to firm up the plan with some of the partner communities that would be with us in submitting a proposal.”

The latest: City lobbyist Dana Fenton told council recently that the plan would be “dead on arrival” if presented as is. That’s because it would be perceived as a city plan, not a plan that benefits the entire region, he said.

The city declined to grant an interview with Fenton or Lyles for this story.

  • Last week, council adopted its legislative agenda, which calls for working with the General Assembly to secure “mobility legislation.” That includes allowing voters to approve a permanent revenue source like a sales tax.
  • The agenda was adopted along party lines, with the two sole Republicans opposed.

“Any group looking to influence public policy needs to start out in the same place – contacting legislators and explaining why they believe what they’re advocating for is necessary,” Berger told Axios in a statement.

“This is the same advice I give to anyone who asks for how they can get involved in the legislative process, no matter if they’re an elected official, local leader,­ or a constituent,” the statement continued.

What they’re saying: Charlotte City Council members told Axios they weren’t surprised by the lack of communication. But they offered different reasons for why that was the case.

  • Mayor Pro Tem Braxton Winston, a Democrat, says there was no collective mandate for the city to talk to lawmakers until the legislative agenda was approved.
  • Tariq Bokhari, a Republican, told Axios the city needs to fundamentally alter its plan but hasn’t been willing. He said he has made more than half a dozen trips to Raleigh in the last year and a half to speak with lawmakers, who are interested in investing more in roads.

“The General Assembly has consistently been an afterthought in the last several years of this planning effort,” he says.

Bokhari said if the plan doesn’t change, he may oppose it.

Driggs noted the city and leaders may have underestimated how long it would take to execute the transit plan. Plus, there are still hurdles to overcome on major projects.

Flashback: In 2021, Winston and Bokhari co-chaired the Intergovernmental Relations Committee. They proposed the committee develop a plan to engage with state and regional leaders. But a majority of council shot down the measure, with other officials saying they wanted to work out more details with the plan.

  • Winston believes that set the city back. “I think it was a failure of leadership on the part of the City Council,” he said.

Context: Charlotte needs to act fast if it wants to compete for the federal funds necessary to start implementing the plan.

  • The city has to apply for federal money by 2026. But before that can happen, Charlotte needs the General Assembly, Mecklenburg County commissioners and voters to all get on board with a sales tax hike. Meanwhile, other cities like Austin are chugging along on their transit plans, and the money is competitive.

Winston says he’s never spoken with Speaker Moore, but he plans to engage with legislators when he’s in Raleigh this week. He believes the city and lawmakers can find common ground.

Yes, but: There appears to be a difference of philosophies between Charlotte and lawmakers like Moore.

  • Moore previously said the city should invest in roads, the primary way people get around, instead of attempting to change people’s habits.
  • But Charlotte wants half of all trips to be taken by a mode of transit other than a single-occupancy vehicle by 2040.
  • Most of the money in the transit plan would go toward an east to west light rail line, the Silver Line. About 80% of the funding in the transit plan would be spent on mass transit, WFAE reports.

What’s next: Council has recently started discussing a new approach to the plan where it funds short-term projects first while it works toward securing federal funds for larger, multi-year endeavors like rail. The city has identified more than 200 transportation investments it would like to “front load,” including street projects and microtransit. It would also improve the bus system.

Driggs said this strategy may help “get the message across that this is not just a rail program.”

  • “I think we owe it to the public to show them more, to have answers,” he said. “We will push ahead. We’re going to try not to miss eligibility for the federal money and keep this moving … The needs are urgent. The traffic situation is rapidly getting worse. We recognize that we don’t have 10 years to solve these problems.”

Axios reached out to Moore’s office, but it did not respond to a request for comment.

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