Roads or mass transit?
It's a debate that Charlotte's political leaders are scrambling to make sure the public never has a chance to have. But it's the real question before us.
Local leaders know that if the public had any idea how dire our road situation was, they'd want to use money from a new half-cent sales tax to upgrade our road system, rather than blowing it on a harebrained scheme to build light rail faster.
That's why a certain cabal of mindlessly green leaders is plowing ahead with plans to attach Mecklenburg to state legislation that would authorize urban cities to put another half-cent sales tax on a future ballot. The legislation in question mandates that the half-cent can only be used for mass transit.
"Why would we turn down tax authority?" a lot of them have argued.
It's an attempt at misdirection -- because there's no rule saying we have to get this taxing authority in this particular bill ... a bill, again, that would force us to use the half-cent for mass transit. If we want the taxing authority, legislators, who certainly seem willing to give it to us, could just as easily file another bill that lets us use it for roads -- or for roads or mass transit. Then we could have a real debate about what we want to do.
Which is precisely what the local leaders who are trying to ram this through want to avoid. Because they know while the legislature likely will give us another half-cent worth of taxing authority, the odds of getting another one after that for roads or something else are slim. That's a massive increase in the sales tax, and if we got it, other counties would want it. State legislators will want it, too, to add to their own capacity to tax in the future. One more half-cent is all we are likely to get.
When a bipartisan committee warns that "the magnitude of the problem we face as a community is enormous" with regard to roads, we should listen. Led by Ned Curran, who has long been a mass transit supporter, the Committee of 21 spent a year studying our "deteriorating" roads situation at the request of the same local officials who want to ignore their findings now.
The committee found that in the absence of a staggering $12 billion worth of new road funding, "our road system will simply break down."
When a committee of business and civic leaders studies a problem no one wants to talk about and warns that our congestion and the condition of our roads would make it hard to recruit business here, we should listen.
Charlotte is now the second most congested mid-sized city in the nation according to the Texas Transportation Institute. INRIX®, a leading provider of traffic information, released its second annual National Traffic Scorecard, which found a 30-percent decrease in traffic nationwide between 2007 and 2008, but a 25-percent increase in Charlotte.
That's with the booming ridership on South Boulevard's LYNX light rail line. That's because while light rail provides an alternative to congestion for those who happen to be headed toward a destination on the line, it doesn't actually reduce congestion.
Over the next 25 years, Charlotte's population is expected to grow by about 340,000 people. That's like adding the entire population of St. Louis or Cincinnati to Charlotte without any of the additional 530 freeway and arterial miles used to get around in those cities. But it's the population just outside of the Charlotte city limits that's the killer. In 2000, 1.7 million people lived in Mecklenburg County and the surrounding counties. By 2020, nearly one million more people will move to this region and flood the roadways.
Three years ago, Charlotte city council members were shocked to learn that 29 percent of Charlotte's thoroughfares and streets are ranked at a gridlocked "E" or "F" level of service, the lowest rankings that the nation's transportation planners assign to roads.
Between now and 2030, even without the second mass transit tax, Charlotte and the metro region will invest $7 billion in mass transit (light rail and buses). But when the city is done spending all that money, according to a report by the city's own department of transportation, the percentage of E's or F's will be even higher: 64 percent. It also predicted we'd have worse congestion than Atlanta.
So far, rather than plan for the future and find sources of money to tackle this problem, local leaders have largely ignored it. To deal with it, the committee recommended using every tax and fee it could find to implement, hike or raise.
Throw away the biggest potential money generator for roads -- another half-cent sales tax -- and we are choosing a polluted, broken-down, congested future in a region where businesses can't easily move goods or services in or out.
That's madness. And it would be even crazier to do it with no debate.