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

Wednesday, July 29, 2020
The Blue Line extension connects UNC Charlotte to uptown via light rail. Photo: Nancy Pierce.

With plans for the 26-mile Silver Line light rail, possible Blue Line extensions, the Gold Line streetcar and more moving forward, there’s a looming question in Charlotte: How will we pay for all of this?

That’s the main question the Charlotte Moves Task Force examined last week. Representatives from Austin, Broward County, Fla. and Nashville joined the 25-member committee to talk about how they succeeded (or failed, in Nashville’s case) at convincing the public to support higher spending on expanded transit and other transportation options.

“The information, we believe, will be useful as we look ahead to the next several meetings and begin the process really of guiding what Charlotte’s transformational mobility will look like,” said former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt, chairing the committee. “And we’ll discuss how we might, most importantly, pay for it.”

There’s no price tag yet for the Silver Line — the Charlotte Area Transit System is still doing preliminary work on the project — but it’s sure to be in the billions of dollars. CATS chief executive John Lewis has previously said Mecklenburg County could explore raising its half-cent sales tax (which would require legislative approval). Hefty state and federal payments would also likely make up a major portion of the funds, as was the case with the Blue Line.

Enter Charlotte Moves: Mayor Vi Lyles formed the group to advise on the city’s new strategic mobility plan and recommend a funding strategy. Last week’s meeting offers some insight into the task force members’ thinking: They heard presentations from three cities that proposed new sales taxes or a big bond referendum to pay for billions of dollars worth of new, regional transit infrastructure.

[‘You can only make roads so big’: Charlotte region launches first transit plan]

Here are three key pieces of advice representatives from the other cities offered Charlotte Moves about how to win public approval for transit and transportation funding.

Make the issue bigger than transit

In auto-dependent Sunbelt cities like Charlotte, the vast majority of people drive alone. That means leaders have to ensure they emphasize benefits for drivers when asking for more money.

“The theme behind the whole effort was connectivity and congestion mitigation,” said Chris Walton, director of transit for Broward County. They won approval of a 1-cent sales tax increase in 2018 with 60% of voters, which is expected to provide more than $15 billion for more buses, light rail, greenways, bike trails, pedestrian infrastructure and road improvements over the next 30 years.

But Broward officials strategically focused their pitch to the public around one item.

“We led a lot of discussions with the road piece,” said Walton. The sales tax referendum passed, despite two previous ballot measures that failed.

The Charlotte Moves Task Force has been meeting virtually because of the pandemic. 

Annick Beaudet, Austin’s assistant director of transportation, said her city has an ambitious goal for the coming decades: “50% of people in 20 years will be driving alone and 50% will be doing something else.”

Getting more people out of their cars will free up road capacity for committed road warriors, said Beaudet. Austin is trying to win voter approval this fall for at least $3 billion in additional transit funding. Beaudet said only would meeting the 50/50 goal help with traffic, pollution and other obvious issues, but the framing helps with public messaging as well.

“That 50/50 seemed fair,” she said. No one can perpetuate a narrative of everyone being forced out of their car and onto a bus or train if the city is saying up front that half its citizens will still be commuting solo.

Stephen Bland, CEO of the Nashville Metropolitan Transit Authority, said one reason for the resounding 2018 defeat for a $5.4 billion transit referendum was that too many voters were convinced it was a plan to mostly benefit downtown Nashville, which was already booming.

“For a lot of folks, this was emblematic of being a downtown-centered, business community-centered project that wouldn’t have day-to-day benefits for a lot of Nashvilleans,” he said. “Make sure your plan has broad-based benefits that can be very clearly communicated.”

Go big

Walton, the Broward transit chief, said local leaders had explored the idea of a half-cent sales tax before settling on asking for a full penny. But after mapping out their whole plan, including a doubling of the bus fleet and building 26 miles of light rail, they realized that wouldn’t be enough.

“Frankly, it would have helped,” he said. “But it would not have built the system we need.”

Mecklenburg County levies a half-cent sales tax to fund CATS. That brought in $108 million last year. Voters have supported the tax twice, through both the initial referendum and an unsuccessful repeal campaign. But like in Broward, the half-penny won’t build the system Charlotte leaders want.

Pay attention to other local issues

Of all the reasons Nashville’s referendum sank by a nearly 2-1 margin, opposition to transit itself was just one of many. The mayor was embroiled in a scandal that resulted in her resignation and a felony guilty plea.

And gentrification was a major concern for many people, especially residents of lower-income neighborhoods, who feared that a new transit system would spur displacement of longtime residents to make way for glitzy new developments.

“A third are gonna vote for it no matter what, a third are gonna vote against it no matter what. It’s the third in the middle you worry about,” said Bland. In the end, only about a third of voters in Nashville voted for the plan — meaning local leaders lost that entire middle third.

“We failed, and it wasn’t even close,” said Bland. His advice: “Account for whatever other hot-button issues there are in Charlotte at the time.”