The Charlotte region’s plans for public transit will fall billions of dollars short of the region’s needs, leaving local leaders scrambling to find new ways to pay for projects such as the proposed Red Line commuter rail to Lake Norman, officials said Friday at a transportation summit.
The politicians painted a stark picture.
• A half-cent sales tax in Mecklenburg County, which was instituted in 1997 to pay for public transit, will fall $2.3 billion short of projections, partly as a result of the recent recession.
• The state recently eliminated its New Starts matching program to fund some projects.
• Federal funding is more uncertain than ever, with cuts of at least 5 to 15 percent expected as mandatory “sequestration” cuts take effect.
“If we don’t do something different, this 2030 or 2035 Plan is going to be more like a 2080 Plan,” said Charlotte City Council member David Howard, a Democrat.
The Charlotte Chamber organized the annual transportation summit, which was held at the Ballantyne Hotel and Lodge.
“This is not a happy story,” said Huntersville Mayor Jill Swain, who called Mecklenburg’s plans to fund transit “completely and totally obsolete.”
Swain and Howard are on the Metropolitan Transit Commission, a regional group focused on mass transit. The group is set to deliver a report this month on how to fund the plan.
“As a matter of fact, we were just going to pass around a hat” to collect money, Swain joked.
Currently, revenue from the county’s half-cent sales tax is fully devoted to extending the Lynx Blue Line to UNC Charlotte. That 9.3-mile project is expected to cost more than $1.1 billion.
Other projects, such as a $119 million proposed streetcar line, are in limbo. Without sufficient sales tax revenue to pay for the streetcar, Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx sought to include it in the city’s capital improvement plan, to be funded with a property tax increase. But the plan didn’t pass, and Charlotte City Manager Ron Carlee has said he might recommend the streetcar not be bundled again with the city’s next capital improvement plan.
The proposed 25-mile Red Line commuter rail is also on hold. That $452-million project hit a snag: Norfolk Southern, which owns the rails the commuter train would use, has said the project might not be feasible. “The sticking point with the Red Line is the negotiation with Norfolk Southern at this point,” Swain said Friday.
To make up the funding shortfall, Howard and Swain said governments will have to look at more creative options and rely less on the sales tax. Those options could include more widespread use of tax-increment financing, in which municipalities use projected increases in property taxes as a result of improvements to fund projects. Projects could also seek more partnerships with private businesses to help pay transit costs.
While much of the discussion focused on how to pay for rail and other public transit projects, the picture for roads wasn’t much rosier. N.C. Secretary of Transportation Tony Tata said money generated from taxes on gasoline won’t be enough to cover road projects, especially as the state’s population grows.
“You are really looking at a funding model that does not take care of the demand,” Tata said.
Portillo: 704-358-5041 On Twitter @ESPortillo
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