Jul 31, 2023 - News

From Gastonia to Charlotte to Concord, leaders in talks about merging transit under regional authority

Centralina Regional Council

Photo: Alexandria Sands/Axios

In a University City office complex, some of the most powerful local leaders in the region joined Friday morning for a low-key meeting about the future of transportation.

Why it matters: Charlotte has ambitious goals for an east-west light rail, northbound commuter rail and bus improvements. Advocates say those projects will spark significant economic investment and make strides in sustainability.

  • But Charlotte leaders have come to terms, over the last year or so, that they won’t be able to get the state or federal buy-in they need for funding purposes unless they bring the entire region in on its plans.

What’s happening: The Centralina Regional Council, a 55-year-old organization that supports local governments in the greater Charlotte area, has organized the Advancing the Plan Committee.

  • The group — made up of the Charlotte Mayor, the city and Mecklenburg County manager, smaller town mayors and various other officials — has been meeting throughout 2023 to talk about establishing a regional transit authority.
  • The authority would push forward Connect Beyond, a 12-county mobility plan that builds on the city of Charlotte’s aspirations.

I sat in on the July meeting to see how talks were progressing. Here are four takeaways from the discussion.

1. State statute will guide the regional transit authority

In North Carolina, there are two regional transit authorities: GoTriangle and Piedmont Authority for Regional Transportation in the Triad. The General Assembly authorized the formation and revenue sources for both. GoTriangle receives funding for capital projects through a 5% vehicle rental tax.

  • The state statutes define the authorities’ powers, board membership and voting rules, and fiscal responsibilities.
  • Centralina executive director Geraldine Gardner said they can pursue their own legislation to form an authority or use one of the two existing Articles.

2. The transit authority can fully integrate all of the region’s bus systems, but it’s a big step

There are two approaches to a regional transit authority.

One option goes all the way as a fully integrated system. One entity would take over all the different transportation providers and oversee all routes and services. That means Charlotte Area Transit System, Concord Kannapolis Area Transit and Gastonia Transit would consolidate.

  • That could get complicated, especially when merging union and non-union employees. Committee members seemed to agree it’s a big leap to take in the near term but could be something they move toward over time.
  • But it will get even more complicated to coordinate between transit systems as time goes on and the area grows. The population will increase to nearly 5 million people in the next 20 years, Janet LaBar of the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance noted during the meeting.

Alternatively, the operators could stay independent while the regional authority focuses on planning. The Atlanta-Region Transit Link Authority is an example of such an approach; it can issue bonds and receive grants for regional projects, but transit systems such as MARTA continue to be autonomous.

3. It will be difficult to include South Carolina in the authority

The Connect Beyond plan makes recommendations in South Carolina, too. Yet, all the leaders in the room Friday were from North Carolina. Mayor Lyles said it’s difficult to apply for funding across state lines.

  • However, it’s worth a serious discussion about whether S.C. wants to be part of the authority. Lyles pointed out Steele Creek, situated on the border, is one of the fastest-growing parts of the city.
  • And Carowinds, straddling the state line, is one of the region’s greatest economic drivers and is in need of mass transit, especially for its workers who are caught in the amusement park’s traffic daily.

4. There is a deadline for this work

While many feel Charlotte’s transit dreams are stalled or even dead, the committee does have an end goal to get the transit authority ball rolling. It expects to finalize a recommendation for a regional governance approach by November.

  • Right now the committee is focused on studying the transit authorities in other states to help decide how a Charlotte area authority would function.
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