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Y'all Weekly Policy: Herding CATS
A primer on some of the issues facing the Charlotte Area Transportation System in 2023, and beyond.
The Charlotte Area Transportation System (CATS) will likely be the top issue shaping local politics in 2023.
More accurately, it’s a collection of issues and contradictions. CATS runs the light rail but outsources management of the bus system to a French company, RATP Dev. The bus drivers and mechanics are unionized and may strike in two weeks due in large part to personal safety concerns; the light rail operators are city employees and not members of a union, due to North Carolina laws that prohibit collective bargaining with government employees.
The CEO of CATS answers to the Charlotte City Manager, but they also answer to the Metropolitan Transit Commission (MTC), a regional body made up of elected officials from across the region. CATS CEO John Lewis resigned on November 30, 2022; assistant city manager Brent Cagle currently serves as interim CEO.
CATS is ostensibly a transportation system, but its growth has led to new construction and economic development. CATS is indispensable for the working class, youth, people living with disabilities, and those on a fixed income; many of the same people have been priced out of neighborhoods along the Lynx Blue Line that runs through South End.
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Democratically-controlled city government has planned a new sales tax for transit since before the pandemic, but the Republican-controlled General Assembly has to approve any sales tax referendum above .25%, and either way the tax must be put on the ballot by the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners. NC Speaker of the House Tim Moore is currently unconvinced by Charlotte’s plan, and recent attempts by the Mecklenburg County Commission to increase the sales tax have been for the arts, parks, and public education, not transit.
Charlotte city leaders have given themselves a job harder than herding cats: getting the city council, CATS, the bus union, RATP Dev, the MTC, the Mecklenburg County Commission, and most important, the North Carolina General Assembly and federal appropriators to agree on a vision for the future.
It’s no surprise CATS failed the stress test of a global pandemic and economic downturn, and the transit tax is trapped in political purgatory. However, both Democrats and Republicans agree transit has shaped Charlotte’s landscape, even if they disagree on the form it takes in the future.
“A good transit system is not only a key component to attracting people and companies to move here, it’s important for those who live here,” former Charlotte Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt told Y’all Weekly. “A predictable and economical transit system broadens the geography of affordable housing, by providing people with more options to move around efficiently.”
“Light rail is one of the most powerful economic development tools I’ve seen in the last 20 years in [Charlotte], but it isn’t a viable strategy to solve the problems people are facing day to day around town, and certainly isn’t even close to where the puck of technology is going to be 20 years from now,” says Charlotte City Councilmember Tariq Bokhari. “The ‘Moore’s Law’ of the 21st century is to focus on advancing a roads-first plan that can tap into the rapidly evolving technologies of IoT, 5G and AV with the goal of increasing mobility every year.”
Community members haven’t been shy in sharing their opinions as well.
Architect Dave Wagner agreed with Speaker Moore’s assessment, specifically focusing on the perceived failure of the Gold Line streetcar project:
With its [CityLynx] Gold Line, Charlotte chose to make a grand appeasement gesture to (one has to assume) lower income neighborhoods without vital transit connections. To call it a debacle is an understatement. Lacking in foresight may be more appropriate.
At north of $50 million already spent, the Gold Line travels a mere 4 miles and abruptly terminates in the middle of a heavily used street. A survey of the locals would find that a large percentage of those asked would say it borders on impractical or useless — failing to make the litmus test as a viable alternative mode of transportation.
Local urbanists and transit advocates were quick to correct the record:
I live near the Gold Line in Charlotte’s West End and can attest that under normal circumstances the 7 bus is a better option than the streetcar. The streetcar is great for getting to and from events at the Spectrum Center, but unlike similar lines it doesn’t have a dedicated right-of-way and is prone to service interruptions. For a transit line that only operates every 20 minutes, any service interruption is deadly.
Even if Charlotte’s streetcar is deemed a complete failure, that’s no reason to condemn the entire system. Imagine if the US Department of Transportation stopped building highways because one of them didn’t work out.
Speaking of which, why doesn’t the city target the federal government for funding? Laws passed by the General Assembly over the past decade tie local government’s hands in some ways. The state will only contribute 10% towards the costs of any light rail project, and will not commit funding until the other 90% is fully funded. That hurts any Charlotte project’s chances when it comes to receiving federal appropriations.
There are other ways the city can address its transit funding dilemma. If the City of Charlotte decides to fund transit through a property tax increase, it doesn’t have to depend on General Assembly Republicans or Democratic County Commissioners. That plan is more likely to go over well with local transit advocates than an idea favored by some Republicans to widen I-77 first, and consider transit later.
The downside to a property tax increase, of course, is that it is heading in the wrong direction away from the City of Charlotte’s stated commitment to lowering the burden of housing costs. Council discussed the difference at their retreat:
For now, the future of Charlotte transit continues to be a stalemate. Before moving forward, however, CATS’s governance will need to change, as suggested by a December report on the system. The executive summary of the report states, “There is interest in CATS transitioning to a regional, independent entity,” and “The current governance and reporting structure needs real change.”
Exactly how CATS changes will be something to watch for transit advocates and skeptics alike.