Last month, after City Manager Marcus Jones stunned the Charlotte City Council with news that the city was $77 million short of completing the heralded Cross Charlotte Trail, angry council members told him to go back and find some money. Jones pledged to do so, and he told the Observer editorial board that he was confident the 26-mile bike and walking trail would be completed as originally planned.
Yet on Monday, city staff presented the council with essentially the same underfunded choices as before — leave eight miles of trails unfinished indefinitely, or complete the southeast portion of the trail and offer the northeast painted lanes on streets instead of the paths they were promised.
That choice was unacceptable to council members then, and it should be unacceptable today. Suddenly, the city is facing not only a funding problem, but a trust issue.
Remember, Jones knew of the trail’s funding woes long before last month. He brought up the budget shortfall to Mayor Vi Lyles in the spring of 2018, but he tucked away information about the problem in documentation the council didn’t know to look for. Jones never made a point to raise the issue with council members, so when the city pitched another bonds package last fall that included money for the trail, voters didn’t know they were giving the nod to a false promise.
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That should be especially galling to residents in northeast Charlotte, who have now approved multiple bonds for the trail but are faced with the possibility of some road paint instead. “It’s an unfair practice to pick winners and losers, especially when it comes to transportation & recreation options,” council member Dimple Ajmera tweeted late Monday.
Two realities everyone should acknowledge: It was Jones who discovered the funding shortfall as part of his examination of a flawed budgeting process, one that included Mecklenburg County shortcomings. “The biggest thing Marcus has done is uncover all of this, the process,” council member Julie Eiselt told the editorial board Monday. It’s also true that Charlotte has bigger priorities than a 26-mile biking and walking trail, and money shouldn’t be taken from more important pots to finish the trail.
Still, the Cross Charlotte Trail offered residents the possibility of genuine connectivity and mobility, and it remains a valuable recruiting tool for the city. Plus, it was promised. Charlotteans voted for a finished trail, multiple times.
Council members need to be attentive to that with each budgeting decision moving forward. Before they allocate any money to the next economic development dart toss or the next big-dollar hug of the Carolina Panthers, the city needs to find the money to complete the trail as intended. No painted bike lanes. No pitches for more bonds. Without it, we’re unsure why anyone in Charlotte — especially in the northeast part of the city — can trust the city on any bond that comes down the path again.