Was Charlotte misled about the Cross Charlotte Trail? ‘I’m going to own this,’ city manager says.

The Cross Charlotte Trail is designed to connect greenways throughout the city into one 26-mile urban trail.
The Cross Charlotte Trail is designed to connect greenways throughout the city into one 26-mile urban trail. Observer file photo

The Charlotte City Council was stunned to learn this week that the Cross Charlotte Trail, the jewel of the city’s greenway projects, is woefully underfunded and in jeopardy. At Monday’s council meeting, city staff reported that the project had fallen an astounding $77 million short of the money needed to complete the 26 miles of connected walking and bicycling paths.

Council members were livid, and Charlotteans should be, too. Failure to finish the trail as promised would be a significant breach of trust — not only to those who were promised a continuous urban trailway back in 2012, but especially to those who voted to approve recent bonds for the trail without knowing what the city knew.

How did this happen? In part, it came from good management.

When City Manager Marcus Jones arrived in Charlotte in late 2016, one of his priorities was to get a more precise accounting of capital projects, sources tell the Observer editorial board. Such projects are often completed in pieces, with each piece essentially priced out independently as the project moves along. That’s not the most efficient way to do things, as those in the business world would tell you, because it can result in the overall price tag exceeding what everyone originally thought a project would cost.

Jones set out to determine those overall project costs sooner, which is a good thing for the city and something council members appreciate, sources tell the editorial board. In the case of the Cross Charlotte Trail, he learned that costs had become significantly higher, in part because Mecklenburg County’s original estimates on construction outside the city were off. The trail, quite simply, was in trouble.

That raises an important question: When did Jones learn this? At Monday’s council meeting, Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles said that Jones brought up the funding shortfall in a “brief conversation” in the spring of 2018. Jones told the editorial board Friday that information about the shortfall was available to the council last year. But that information was tucked away in documentation, and neither Jones nor Lyles made a point to raise the issue with council members last year.

That means that as voters considered a bond referendum in November that included more money for the trail, they didn’t know that parts of the project might be in jeopardy. The lack of transparency should be especially galling to residents in the northeast part of the city, where the unfunded part of the trail is located.

Jones took responsibility for those transparency issues Friday. “I’m going to own this,” he told the editorial board. Good.

Council members are urging Jones to find a way a complete the Cross Charlotte trail as promised, and Jones told the editorial board he is “optimistic” that he and staff will come up with the money. It won’t be easy, but we’re hopeful. Charlotte was promised a trail that would be a game-changing urban showpiece. Residents voted for several bonds to fund that trail. If it doesn’t come to pass, Charlotteans would be rightly skeptical of any future project, any bonds campaign, any big promise down the road.