Saturday, August 25, 2007

Charlotte's Transit Web

Neil Pierce has a column in the Hartford Courant about Charlotte's trials and tribulations in their fight for transit. It's a fabulous article and tells a lot about the trouble we have in this country explaining the benefits of good transit and alternatives to driving. One part of the interview is telling,

But why should an elected official take all the grief for pushing a new concept? Public transportation and land-use planning were nowhere on the agenda, McCrory acknowledges, when he ran in 1995. But a few weeks into office, he read a previous mayor's neglected "Committee of 100" report on public transportation. The report's thrust: The fast-growing Sunbelt city would choke on its expansion without effective bus and rail transit lines.

Then McCrory noticed for himself: "When I took my nephews out on strollers, we couldn't get to the street because there were no damned sidewalks. We had no connectivity or pedestrian access - just total reliance on the car." He began to see alternative futures: Charlotte could have tree-lined streets with bikeways and sidewalks, or "traffic lights every 15 feet, strip malls and unlimited pavement."

No sidewalks. That is the mark of a city with its priorities in the wrong places. And Charlotte has many people who want that burgeoning banking center to go back to a southern hole in the wall. But kudos to McCrory for having a vision and doing something to change that.

So why did McCrory become his region's lead advocate for public transit at all? One reason was purely pragmatic. While the exciting idea of rail service got the most attention in the 1998 sales tax referendum, McCrory had another, bigger worry. The city had a dilapidated, poorly run bus system, supported by the city property tax.

McCrory explains: "I thought a regionwide sales tax would be better - people driving in from outside sharing the burden." In fact, 65 percent of the proceeds from the expanded sales tax that opponents are attacking actually finances an expanded, successful new bus system. If the sales tax gets repealed, McCrory says, "the entire bus system cost gets transferred back to Charlotte property taxpayers. I'm a conservative; I want to protect them."
This is a side I hadn't heard before but its true. Why should the residents of Charlotte take the burden of the region? Similar to Minneapolis and Portland, Charlotte is somewhat of a regional government given that their county and city are under one government. It makes it easier to establish a vision and build on it. Also suburbanites have been sucking on the subsidies from cities for the last half century and not paying for it. Tax base created by downtowns often gets exported to the burbs in the form of utility outlays and freeways. Now they are being asked to ante up a bit and they cry not fair. But what about the people who pay most of the taxes?

Many of the opponents have it very wrong. Sure there are things to learn from the inflation and bidding on the original line and service doesn't go to every part of the city yet, but Rome wasn't built in a day and there are solid plans for expansion. Charlotte is one of those cities where the cost of living will benefit from an extensive rail network. There is no doubt in my mind that Charlotte would be a new flash of gold in a southern region choking on its own congestion and autocentricity. And when gas goes to $10 a gallon, you know who is going to win? Cities that thought ahead, like Charlotte.

On a side note, this letter to the editor hits the nail on the head.

Transit critics outed: Just follow the money

Ever since I read in the Observer about the Chamber's involvement in the transit study conducted by UNC Charlotte, I've been waiting to read more about the backgrounds of transit opponents.For example, David Hartgen's work has been funded by the Reason Foundation, known for its connections to the auto and oil industries. Do you think it might have a vested interest in less light rail?

Many opponents' funding can be traced back to the conservative John Locke Foundation, based in Raleigh. Why might they be interested in defeating light rail in Charlotte?

Bea Quirk

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