Politics & Government

North Mecklenburg voters helped defeat Pat McCrory. Will they turn on transit next?

North Mecklenburg residents have paid their share of the hundreds of millions of dollars collected for mass transit since 1998, but to date they’ve gotten little in return.
North Mecklenburg residents have paid their share of the hundreds of millions of dollars collected for mass transit since 1998, but to date they’ve gotten little in return. tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com

North Mecklenburg residents have paid their share of the hundreds of millions of dollars collected for mass transit since 1998, but to date they’ve gotten little in return.

Now, their frustration could harm the chances for ambitious regional plans to spend billions to add rail lines throughout the county – to Lake Norman, Matthews and the airport.

Some north Mecklenburg residents believe that Charlotte leaders have given them the worst of two worlds.

Little progress has been made toward a commuter train that’s been planned for nearly 20 years. At the same time, the Charlotte City Council helped approve controversial Interstate 77 toll lanes.

The Charlotte Area Transit System’s new train lines could cost as much as $6 billion. That could require an expanded transit sales tax that would need voter approval.

“A transit tax today would find a lot less support than in earlier votes, that’s for sure,” said Kurt Naas of Cornelius, a leader of the movement against toll lanes. “Up here (people think) Charlotte doesn’t act for the region, but it acts for Charlotte.”

Naas and others believe north Mecklenburg voters cost Pat McCrory in his reelection bid for governor when reliably Republican voters chose Democrat Roy Cooper because of McCrory’s refusal to stop the project.

He said there is similar discontent over transit.

The Red Line is the planned train from uptown to Lake Norman – a project has been discussed for two decades.

There is no doubt they would not be receptive to another tax considering we’re already paying a half cent and we’re not seeing any return.

State Rep. John Bradford, a Republican from Cornelius

One reason it hasn’t moved forward is that CATS can’t pay for it. The other reason: Norfolk Southern railroad has refused to let CATS share the tracks that it owns.

CATS chief executive John Lewis is now considering finding a new corridor apart from the Norfolk Southern tracks. That would likely add hundreds of millions of dollars to the $500 million estimated cost.

This past week he was in Raleigh meeting with lawmakers about ways to pay for the new train lines.

Some north Mecklenburg leaders believe they are spending significantly more than they are getting. Data suggest north Mecklenburg – which has 10 percent of the county’s population – is underserved.

CATS operates five bus routes that serve the north Mecklenburg towns – two express routes for commuters and three neighborhood shuttles.

In 2015, those five bus routes carried 385,773 passenger trips. That’s about 1.3 percent of the total passenger count for CATS buses and light rail.

CATS spent $3.7 million operating those five bus lines – about 3 percent of the transit system’s operating budget.

The city of Charlotte said the state doesn’t break down where money from the half-cent sales tax came from, so it doesn’t know how much the towns contributed.

But north Mecklenburg is wealthier than the county as a whole, so its per-capita spending is likely higher than the county average. The countywide tax is expected to generate $85 million this fiscal year.

A north Meck exit?

While Lewis is planning a massive rail expansion, some lawmakers have discussed whether the north Mecklenburg towns – Huntersville, Cornelius and Davidson – could pull out of the existing half-cent sales tax.

State Sen. Jeff Tarte, a Huntersville Republican, floated the idea.

“If you voted to pass a tax for a specific, stated purpose and that purpose is not going forward, should you continue to be taxed? That is the question at hand for many residents,” he said.

But Tarte conceded that the tax is likely to stay. He discovered the north Mecklenburg towns can’t opt out of the tax, except if the entire tax is repealed. County commissioners could place a repeal measure on the ballot, though that’s unlikely to happen.

If there is a new vote on an expanded transit tax, north Mecklenburg could be a roadblock.

Republican Jim Puckett, a Mecklenburg commissioner, said a turning point for north Mecklenburg residents happened in January 2016, when the Charlotte City Council voted to back the toll lane project.

During a council meeting, Ned Curran, the former chair of the N.C. Department of Transportation board, told council members that they should approve the toll lanes.

One reason, he said, is that it was unclear if the Red Line commuter train to Lake Norman would be built in the foreseeable future. Curran said the toll lanes would allow buses to get to Charlotte quickly, providing a temporary substitute for the train.

The City Council then directed Mayor Pro Tem Vi Lyles to support the I-77 toll lanes. She cast the deciding vote to keep the toll lanes.

“That’s when people said, ‘To the hell with this transit tax,’” Puckett said.

Puckett added: “What people in north Mecklenburg heard was, ‘I’m paying a transit tax for a train that will never come, and now I have to give up a general purpose expansion (on I-77), and to pay to use a toll lane.”

State Rep. John Bradford, a Republican from Cornelius, agreed.

“There is no doubt they would not be receptive to another tax considering we’re already paying a half cent and we’re not seeing any return,” he said.

Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts, a Democrat, was upset by the talk about withdrawing from the transit tax.

“This is deeply concerning at a time when we are very near opening the Blue Line extension, and we have been speaking with mayors in Cabarrus County about operating express shuttles to connect their towns to that line when it opens,” she said in an email to Tarte and other officials last week.

Promises not kept

In 1998, the half-cent sales tax for transit was approved by county voters, 58 percent to 42 percent.

In north Mecklenburg, support was even stronger. In eight northern precincts, 62 percent of voters backed the tax.

When the tax was originally approved in 1998, the city said it could expand bus bus service and build multiple rail lines with the money for the half-cent tax.

Nine years later, in 2007, after cost overruns on the Lynx Blue Line, there was a countywide vote on whether to repeal the tax. The repeal effort failed, with 70 percent of voters backing the half-penny tax.

In those same north Mecklenburg precincts, 68 percent of voters against the repeal.

In 2007, when the repeal vote took place, CATS had expanded the bus service and only built the first nine miles of the Blue Line.

But during the debate over repealing the tax, the transit system told voters the existing half-cent tax could still extend the Blue Line to UNC Charlotte, build a commuter line to Lake Norman, a streetcar and some form of rapid transit to Matthews.

That hasn’t happened.

A decade later, CATS is scheduled to open the Blue Line extension to UNC Charlotte in August. The city of Charlotte has paid for the streetcar.

Nothing else has been built – and CATS doesn’t have enough money for any large-scale projects.

One reason: Revenue from the sales tax dropped significantly after the recession, throwing off CATS’s revenue projections. (The Charlotte economy, however, is booming again.)

The train lines also cost much more than projected. For instance, the Blue Line extension was supposed to cost $750 million. The current price is $1.1 billion – and that’s after CATS shortened the line to save money.

See how construction of the Blue Line Extension is progressing and transforming neighborhoods. Produced by Karen Sullivan. Photos courtesy of Charlotte Area Transit System.

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs