by Jeff Taylor
Very interesting calculation going on with regard to the half-cent transit tax repeal in Charlotte’s African-American community. There seems to be a general consensus that the current plan has — to this point — not been a boon to the black community. The difference lies in whether things will get better in the future.
Those who support the tax say, yes. Those who favor repeal say, no. I say things will only get worse for current transit riders and West Charlotte unless the tax is repealed in November and Charlotte gets a new transit plan. I say that for two reasons, one a national trend and the second local politics.
As we’ve noted in recent days, the transit systems in San Jose and Chicago are in the midst of a money squeeze. San Jose’s can be traced directly to a train-building spree, Chicago’s is more complicated. But the end result is the same in both cities: Local officials are threatening to cut off bus service unless they get new tax revenue for their transit systems.
There must be a secret manual somewhere that instructs any official being questioned by the public on transit to threaten the local bus system. It is that routine.
The mother of all sacrificing buses to trains came when Los Angeles started to build light rail in the 1990s. By 1994 the NAACP Legal Defense Fund sued the Metropolitian Transit Authority for misusing federal funds by cutting bus service while adding trains. For the legally-minded, the case used Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act which prohibits federal funds from being used to further “intentional discrimination” and “adverse disparate impact discrimination” on the basis of race, ethnicity or national origin.
In 1996 NAACP won a consent decree ordering the MTA to reverse itself and restore bus service. But the city kept fighting for trains. The city appealed the case all the way to the Supreme Court in 2002, which declined to review the case.
The result was MTA was ordered to buy more buses and pay the NAACP $5.5 million. But the dispute over how to run the LA transit system continued with bickering over the meaning of the consent decree well into 2005.
Now, clearly, if there had been a way to implement trains in LA without reducing bus service someone at the MTA would have tried it without all the long, painful, expensive business of a court-case. Yet so great are the cost pressures kicked off by train-building, bus service becomes an obvious target in city after city.
Charlotte will not be immune to these cost pressures either. In fact, we’ll really do not know what the cost of running the South Blvd. line will be, nor the extent of the revenue produced by the ridership. And we positively do not know what the impact will be of five corridors of trains will be, other than they will spin off annual costs of between $250 and $350 million.
So that’s the national trend — expensive trains eat into funding for buses.
Locally, the political pressures are much simpler to understand. West Charlotte does not have a vote on the Metropolitan Transit Commission so it will always come last when the MTC considers Charlotte’s transit plans.
That the MTC is a purely political body can be seen in the fact that in July it approved financing plans for the $470 million North commuter line strictly because the mayors of the Northern towns had the votes to do so. No sane transit plan would opt to build a line that will only — and this is if CATS is correct — at most remove two percent of the traffic from I-77 by 2030.
Put another way, CATS is rushing to spend roughly the same amount it spent on the South line — assuming the the final cost of that line holds at around $500 million, perhaps a big assumption — on a new project that will move less than one-quarter the number of people as the South line by 2030. That is madness.
But it is exactly what we are doing. Oh, and we are using $76 million in debt secured by future property tax revenues to build that train, money that could be spent on schools or parks instead. Funny how no one likes to talk about that.
This should also tell you that West Charlotte has zero chance of getting any kind of streetcar with the current plan in place. Why? Because if we keep the tax and keep the current plan, this is what happens next.
After the election, we’ll get an update on the cost of South line. Wild guess — $575 million. Then we’ll start lining up contracts for the North line and scoping out financing for the Northeast line. Operating cost for the South line will come in higher than expected, ridership slightly lower, and congestion with be much worse along South Blvd. do to the trains crossing at-grade.
At some point, maybe as early as 2009, maybe not until 2013 or beyond CATS and the city will declare that we do not have enough money to finish the North line and continue planning the Northeast line.
Then we’ll be right back where San Jose and Chicago are now, having to choose between higher taxes or less bus service and wishing we hadn’t be suckered again in 2007 into supporting a transit plan we cannot afford and does not actually move people.
We need a new plan.