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Mayoral candidates tackle transportation

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Transportation in Charlotte is a regular source of confusion for Queen City residents. Will light rail be expanded into more neighborhoods — and what about streetcars?

In part four of an ongoing series, Creative Loafing recently spoke to the remaining candidates -- Anthony Foxx and John Lassiter -- who are vying to be the next head of the city to find out what each man would do about Charlotte's transportation woes if elected mayor.

Martin Davis, who lost his mayoral bid in the Republican primary on Sept. 15, offered his parting shots on the race, saying Foxx and Lassiter are two sides of the same "Uptown elite" coin.

"They both are totally acceptable to the power elite that runs this community. They both -- at all costs -- will build up the transit system," he said.

Davis said that he personally likes both candidates, but he thinks either man will increase taxes to fund transit and build roads, and that will further hurt Charlotte's fragile economy.

"The one thing about Anthony is [President] Barack Obama's consultant, [David] Axlerod is running his campaign. I wouldn't be surprised if Obama came down here and campaigned for him."

(Foxx campaign spokeswoman Jill Santuccio said -- through laughter -- that Axlerod is not running Foxx's campaign. "I think he has more important stuff to do ... not that what we're doing here isn't important.")

Will Davis be on any future ballots? Don't count on it.

"The people have spoken and I've done my best," he said. "It was a good experience for me ... But the people have spoken, and they spoke emphatically about me."

And now, let's hear what the current candidates have to say about transportation:

Creative Loafing: What's the future of Charlotte's light rail system?

John Lassiter: Charlotte has a 25-year transportation plan that includes roads, expansion of our bus system and five mass transit corridors that have several options for both design and financing. The current Blue Line along South Boulevard is up and running and, by all measures, a success in both ridership and economic development along the corridor -- over $2 billion in private development to date. The Northeast line from downtown to UNC Charlotte has been approved by the Federal Transportation Administration and is in design. Both projects have a local funding source approved by the voters, a half-cent sales tax. A commuter line north to Davidson along I-77 and a streetcar line from Beatties Ford Road to Eastland Mall are in policy discussion, but no funding source has been identified for construction, nor have we determined the best methods to improve travel along Independence Boulevard or from downtown to the airport. In all cases, the ultimate form of transit will require a partnership between Charlotte, the state of North Carolina and the FTA.

Anthony Foxx: I feel good about our transit system, but it is incomplete. As we complete it, the benefits will multiply -- particularly as we build out our rail systems. People who live or employers who locate along those corridors will have guaranteed commute times.

What are the major issues with providing citywide public transit that people are willing to use?

Lassiter: Our expanded bus service has seen ridership increase more than 50 percent, especially as gas prices remain high and the cost to park a car escalates. Our Blue Line remains full during peak times and has become a mainstay for folks attending concerts, ballgames and entertainment venues. But light rail is considerably more expensive to both build and operate than buses. Our challenges will be state and federal funding in a down economy, lack of development opportunities along the corridors due to limited credit and the need to balance road construction and improvements with mass transit options.

Foxx: Funding.

How will future transit projects be funded?

Lassiter: As noted [earlier], the Northeast line to UNC Charlotte will be paid locally one-fourth through the voter approved sales tax, one-half by the federal government and the balance by the state. We may find some smaller grants that could stimulate project financing but the estimated price tags of the lines, $250 million for the North commuter line and $450 milion for the streetcar, will require considerable state and federal funding to be matched by a local source that has not been identified.

Foxx: The half-cent sales tax will continue support of our bus system and some of our fixed-rail systems -- potentially the Northeast Corridor (UNC-Charlotte) and a portion of the North Commuter rail line. Everything else -- a streetcar and a potential light rail solution on Independence Boulevard -- is unfunded. We're going to have to be creative. Tax-increment financing should be a part of the equation, as should municipal service districts. Those solutions allow those who most benefit from these lines to carry the load of paying for them.

Will current plans in place continue for transit development in the future? Why or why not?

Lassiter: In order for Charlotte's economy to prosper and create jobs, we will need to address all our transportation needs: roads, transit and expanded bus service. With air quality issues affecting our ability to build enough roads to accommodate the growth, we must continue to develop and expand our transit options and develop projects for housing, retail and office that reduce our dependency on the automobile and keep Charlotte a desirable place for people to start their career, raise a family and grow a business.

Foxx: They should. In fact, to the extent that we can reasonably do so, they should be accelerated. Name a city in the Southeast that has a complete transit system? You can't because there isn't one. Transit can be a competitive advantage for Charlotte -- changing our growth patterns more toward in-fill growth, squarely addressing air-quality issues and drawing companies to grow jobs here. I disagree with those who say that we can't push for a holistic transportation system: roads, transit, sidewalks and land use. We have to do all of these things.

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