- Charlotte has a long-term transportation plan, but the state legislature is blocking a funding mechanism.
- A narrow “focus on roads” threatens the city’s future growth.
- Charlotte is running out of time to find a solution.
To put it lightly, Charlotte Area Transportation (CATS) has its issues. 2023 bus ridership was down 75% from its pre-pandemic levels. The CityLYNX Gold Line is unfinished, unfunded, and runs on 30-minute headways because of staffing shortages. The city’s land use planning and mess of suburban sprawl outside of the 277 loop makes robust transit options inefficient at best and downright impossible at worst.
The good news: city leaders have a plan to fix it.
The bad news: that plan is dead in the water, thanks to the North Carolina General Assembly.
The Charlotte Strategic Mobility Plan was adopted by the Council in June 2022, with an expected cost of $13.5 billion. It’s an ambitious, long-range transportation plan with the goal of equipping Charlotte with a robust, reliable public transit network and bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. It’s not perfect, but it represents the council’s attempts to move away from the car-centric design model that is choking the Queen City to death. It includes:
- Expansion of the Gold line and building out the Red and Silver line light rail to extend commuter rail to Mint Hill and Huntersville
- Transit connections to the airport
- A new “Gateway station” which would finally link the Amtrak routes with light rail
- Funding for Bus Rapid Transit (or BRT), improvements to frequency and reliability of the current bus routes, and a host of Bike and Pedestrian improvements to hit Charlotte’s 2040 Vision Zero goal.
- A list of specific roadway improvements for drivers and commuters.
$13.6 Billion is a very significant investment even for a city as large as Charlotte, and about half of that would be for the new rail line. To pay for it, the Charlotte City Council originally planned to pass a small sales tax increase. Sales tax increases need to be approved by voters, and under state law, that means the General Assembly needs to approve the increase as a ballot measure.
And that’s where Charlotte’s transit ambitions fell apart.
The power Speaker of North Carolina’s State House, Tim Moore, stated he wouldn’t support the transit plan because it spent too much on transit and bike lanes. Instead, Moore thinks Charlotte should “focus on road capacity,” even going as far as saying, “If you get out and you drive anywhere and 95% of people are driving a car, they are not riding a bike. They are not riding a bus. I think bus ridership after COVID is at abysmally low levels.”
Moore, it should be said, does not live in Charlotte, but rather Kings Mountain, two counties and 40 minutes away (if he’s lucky, without traffic). Perhaps because of this distance, Moore’s criticism missed the point. Most people in Charlotte drive precisely because the city’s car-centric infrastructure has made it impossible to do anything else. The infrastructure to bike safely, for example, simply doesn’t exist in most of the city. Bus ridership is low because the current system is nowhere near frequent or reliable enough to meet people’s needs. Alternatives to driving that got cars off the road would mean less traffic for the rest.
Partisan Republican politicians, such as Moore, are also known to harbor a long-running resentment of Charlotte, long a Democratic stronghold. Mecklenburg county itself once regularly sent Republican leaders to Raleigh, including Bob Rucho, Andy Wells, and of course, Thom Tillis; but no more. The GOP has mostly imploded all over Mecklenburg, as suburban voters there have bolted from the party over increasing extremism and corruption, particularly in the Trump/MAGA era. The 2024 election is quite likely to see the extinction of the last Republican state legislators elected from Mecklenburg county.
The “capacity” for more than roads
“Focusing on road capacity” is suicide for large urban areas. Cars are extremely space-inefficient; the more focus on road capacity, the worse the problem becomes. More cars mean wider roads and more parking lots, which makes everything farther apart, which makes cars more necessary and means more road capacity is needed; it’s the exact death spiral that’s made over a quarter of Atlanta and Houston’s land area into parking lots.
Cars present not only a space issue, but a climate challenge as well. 78% of microplastics found in our environment are made of tire dust and particulates. North Carolinian cities have been “focused on road capacity” for decades. That effort destroyed hundreds of black-owned businesses in Durham’s Hayti neighborhood and displaced thousands of black residents for the benefit of white suburban commuters. In Charlotte, I-77 and US-74 have ripped a scar down the city that splits the affluent white, wealthy neighborhoods from the lower-income Black and Hispanic ones.
City Council held their annual retreat in Winston-Salem in late January. They came away with many questions and few answers. The two Republican council members, Tariq Bokhari and Ed Driggs, seem to agree with Moore that a roads-focused approach is needed, and it’s likely the only way to get state support for the sales tax increase would be to ditch the light rail projects that make up half of the $13.6 billion price tag. The council could also change the funding mechanism to a property tax increase, something that wouldn’t need state approval, but that seems less likely. In any situation, time to secure federal funds for these projects is slipping away, and unless Democrats regain control of Congress in 2025, more aren’t likely to become available soon.
Charlotte needs much more than a transportation plan, of course – it also needs a zoning code rewrite and an overhaul of its land use planning approach. But perhaps most importantly, Charlotte needs a partner in a state legislature that actually believes in the city, its future, and wants to help it move forward, not one trying to drag it back in time.
Samad Rangoonwala is an Opinion writer for the Daily Tarheel based in Carrboro.