Can the city, county work together to solve transportation issues?

Transportation & Planning
Wednesday, August 26, 2020
I-485 exit in Charlotte

“We cannot do this individually. If we try to attack these problems in our own lanes only, we will only succeed at failing.”

“Everything we embark on needs an intergovernmental framework and strategy to move forward.”

“We truly are breaking down silos that exist in government.”

That’s City Council members Tariq Bokhari, Braxton Winston and Matt Newton speaking Tuesday at a joint meeting with Mecklenburg County commission members to talk about a shared strategy on transportation. The consensus was clear: We need more cooperation and joint planning to craft solutions to the region’s growing congestion. 

The council and commission are expected to consider a resolution later this year to “commit to work together to develop a regulatory definition of transportation that includes a multi-modal transportation network such as shared use paths, greenways, trails, protected bike and pedestrian lanes, sidewalks and public transit.”

The push for more joint efforts reflects the fragmentation in local governance, which is especially apparent when it comes to transportation and land-use planning. The city controls planning and zoning, plus the Charlotte Area Transit System and some local streets; the state controls other thoroughfares, like Providence Road; the county controls parks and greenways (except for the Cross Charlotte Trail); Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools decides where to build local schools.

[Here’s what other Sunbelt cities can show Charlotte about transit funding]

But despite the fragmented system, planning, transportation and land use decisions all affect one another. Where CMS builds schools depends on roads and influences traffic; the county’s decisions about greenways affect how people can safely move around on bikes and stimulate development; the city’s decisions about roads and zoning impact everything else. 

That’s why city and county leaders said their joint planning talks this week are significant. The initiative is a first.

“Today is a really big deal. I hope you feel the gravity,” said commission member Mark Jerrell, referring to the city-county joint meeting. CMS board member Margaret Marshall also attended, making it what some attendees said was the first official, joint meeting with representatives of all three bodies present.

Greenway construction in south Charlotte

Despite the enthusiasm for more collaboration and a joint resolution, many practical questions remain about how the city and county governments will work together on transportation issues — and will likely make the difference between whether this latest effort goes beyond joint resolutions. These include:

How will staff work together?

The Charlotte Department of Transportation, CATS, the county Park & Recreation Department and other agencies involved all report to different bosses. Some of them have different funding streams, and sometimes competing interests (do you prioritize faster travel times for cars on a new road or making space for a new greenway?).

“We are going to give guidance to our staffs to break down silos between our organizations,” said Bokhari. 

The way that guidance is implemented will be the sticky part. Or, as commission member Pat Cotham put it: “I would enjoy listening to more implementation ideas.”

How will plans extend beyond the city and county? 

With a large increase in intercounty commuting over the past decades, Mecklenburg and Charlotte’s actions can’t be considered in a vacuum. And CATS’ plans for the Silver Line call for extending rail to Union and Gaston counties, which could require a new, regional funding model.

“We’re a city in a region,” said Charlotte Deputy City Manager Taiwo Jaiyeoba, the city’s chief planner. 

More regional planning efforts have kicked off in recent years, including the region’s first comprehensive transportation plan, headed by the Centralina Regional Council. But elected officials this week acknowledged there’s a long way to go from just talking to each other to making real policy and funding decisions. 

“Unfortunately, we don't have the kind of seamless framework that is needed to fully and comprehensively tackle the issues our county and our region need to handle,” said Winston. 

Will electoral cycles make cooperation difficult?

“For us to be able to connect all the dots out there, there's going to need to be collaboration,” said council member Larken Egleston. But the timing of our local electoral cycle could complicate that. 

It’s an issue that bubbles up in Charlotte as predictably as the cicada swarms emerging from their burrows: Should we have longer, staggered terms for local leaders? It’s a question that could have special significance for city-county collaboration.
City council and county commission members currently serve two-year terms. Each board is up for election every other year, the city on odd years, county on even ones.

That means there’s the potential for large shifts in the board (a majority of new members on the city council in 2017, for example). And it means one of the governing bodies in a true city-county collaboration will always be running for election, every year. 

Is Charlotte ready to move beyond a car-centric transportation vision?

There’s been a huge focus during the coronavirus pandemic on biking, walking and using streets and public spaces for things beyond parking and moving cars. And traffic did indeed plunge during stay-at-home orders. 

“It provides us an opportunity to rethink our city, rethink transportation,” said Jaiyeoba. “It’s not a mobility system if it’s only going to be a network of roads. It’s not a system if it's only focused on one mode of transportation.”

But we’re still a city where roughly eight out 10 commuters drive alone, with a bus system that can be slow and hard to navigate, and a light rail limited to one line (with a streetcar on the way). When the pandemic subsides, the big question remains: How many of us will go back to the old way of doing things, especially driving?

Jaiyeoba said the answer will depend, in part, on how much the city and county spend on alternate ways for people to get around, like more trails and transit. 

“As we grow as a city, we definitely want to invest a lot more in how we move people,” said Jaiyeoba.