The Charlotte Chamber, a longtime backer of mass transit, hasnt endorsed the citys $119 million streetcar extension, sparking tension with Mayor Anthony Foxx.
The city of Charlotte and the Chamber have historically worked hand-in-hand to persuade voters to spend hundreds of millions of dollars for new infrastructure.
But this year the Chamber has been cautious about extending the streetcar line.
For the last six months, Foxx has lobbied the Chamber to support a nearly $1 billion capital plan, including the streetcar. The mayor would like Chamber officials to give the streetcar their full support just as they did last spring when the Chamber lobbied City Council members to support city funding for an uptown baseball stadium.
Both Foxx and the Chamber are diplomatic about their differences, and Foxx will only say that in the current economy, having Chamber support is important.
The city cant use taxpayer-funded resources to mount a political campaign to sway voters to support bonds for capital projects. That job is usually handled by the Chamber.
In an interview, Foxx noted the Chambers different stances on the capital plan compared with the push for city funding for a new baseball stadium for the Charlotte Knights.
City urged to fund baseball
I had a letter in my hand in April from the Chamber urging the council to support uptown baseball, Foxx said in an interview. And for some (council members), that means a great deal.
The mayor said that, during the debate over the capital budget, the Chamber sent council members a letter saying it would support whatever capital plan that the council approved. But the Chamber didnt urge them to support a particular capital plan, including a streetcar.
Chamber President Bob Morgan said his organization is doing all it can for the capital plan. But its leadership is divided on the merits of the streetcar, making it difficult to be fully invested on the project.
Our board was divided on the capital budget, Morgan said. Our position remains the same. We werent opposed to a tax increase, though we want it as minimum as possible. We are for a Capital Improvement Program. We support the roads, the improvements by the intermodal yard (by Charlotte Douglas International Airport). We took no position on the streetcar.
The Chamber is generally an ardent supporter of mass transit. It fully supported building the Lynx Blue Line and also fought in 2007 to preserve the half-cent sales tax for mass transit against a repeal effort.
Getting the votes
Morgan said some members of the Chambers leadership team believe the streetcar is worthwhile, while others dont think its worth the money.
I think the community is divided, and our leadership reflects that, Morgan said. We need a CIP. We just need to figure out how do we get the votes.
He added: Put it on the ballot, and well run the campaign, notwithstanding the real division (about the streetcar).
Early this year, Walton unveiled a $926 million capital plan to invest mostly in the citys economically struggling neighborhoods.
Included is the streetcar, which eventually is planned to run from Beatties Ford Road through uptown and down Central Avenue. The Lynx is primarily a north-south light-rail transit line, while the streetcar would connect east and west Charlotte.
In June, council members shot down that capital plan by a 6-5 vote, with the streetcar as the flashpoint for opposition. That same night, council members approved spending $8 million for the uptown baseball stadium, which had been a Chamber priority.
Foxx, a Democrat, had said he was ambivalent about using city money for the baseball stadium, but he chose not to veto the councils decision.
Two weeks later, council members approved a smaller capital budget by a 6-5 vote, but Foxx vetoed it, saying it didnt do enough for the city. That second capital budget didnt include the streetcar. It also cut other items the mayor said were important, such as $20 million for public-private partnerships to help revitalize the area around Bojangles Coliseum.
Foxx has convened two special budget meetings this fall to try and find a compromise on the streetcar. The council hasnt reached an agreement.
The mayor said this week that he is open to using revenue sources other than property taxes to pay for the streetcar.
The third budget workshop in November was cancelled and pushed back to Dec. 17.
Light rail and streetcar
Morgan said Foxx has been fighting hard for the streetcar and lobbying him and the Chamber to get behind it. At an October ceremony marking the federal governments commitment to building the light-rail extension to University City, Foxx reportedly asked Morgan to back him on the streetcar after the mayors work on advancing other rapid transit.
Virtually every time I am in the presence of the mayor, he says, I need your support for the streetcar, Morgan said. We have said, We are where we are.
Ned Curran of the Bissell Companies is on the Chambers 23-member executive committee, which Morgan said is divided on the streetcar issue.
In an interview, Curran said his views on the streetcar arent necessarily the views of the Chamber.
He said he agrees with efforts by council member Michael Barnes, a Democrat, to look for ways other than the property tax to fund the streetcar. Foxx supports using property taxes to pay for the streetcar.
Curran, who served on a 2008 transportation think group called the Committee of 21, said he doesnt think the streetcar will improve mobility.
I dont think it offers any advantage over existing bus service, Curran said. And I put on my developers hat, and it doesnt offer the same inducement to the traveler as light rail. ... If we were to prioritize the dollars, the streetcar just doesnt make it near the top of the list of priorities.
Democrat James Mitchell said hes worked over the last month to get a council majority to back the streetcar.
People like me are having discussions with the business community to find multiple revenues, Mitchell said. I dont have a sixth vote yet. But I think I will by the 17th.
Mitchell, who represents District 2 in northeast Charlotte, said hes considering running for an at-large city seat this year.
If Mitchell runs for a citywide seat, he could force a logjam among Democrats for the four at-large seats. Three of the four at-large members Patrick Cannon, Claire Fallon and Beth Pickering are wary about the streetcar. David Howard supports it.
Fallon, elected to her first term in 2011, said shes planning to run again. She said political pressure wont change her position on the streetcar.