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Transit Tax Smackdown

Caution: nuances ahead


Twenty years ago, I thought Charlotte should begin constructing a light rail system right away. If local leaders had actually pulled that off, light rail could have created a denser in-city area and possibly saved Pineville, Cornelius and Huntersville from becoming environmental roadkill. In those days, I also believed it was possible for our city and county government to come up with environmentally responsible growth plans -- and enforce them. I think the Easter Bunny was somewhere in that scenario, too.

Twenty years later, we have one nearly complete light rail line -- make that one unbelievably expensive, politically scandal-ridden, nearly complete light rail line -- and a fierce campaign that will determine whether there will be any other lines in the city's future is heating up

I plan, for once, to try to stay out of the way of the flying B.S. I'm not torn on the issue itself -- I'll hold my nose and vote against repealing the transit tax -- it's just that both sides in this latest community fistfight are so unappealing and so shady, to say that they don't inspire confidence is putting it mildly.

On one side are the usual conservative gripers who oppose any government actions that don't benefit them directly and one Jay Morrison, a future office-seeker who led the anti-transit-tax petition campaign. Their base of support is found in the suburbs where many residents believe government should lower their taxes while somehow spending hundreds of millions of bucks to give them more roads so they won't feel so damned crowded! The 'burban warriors and no-more-taxers are aided in their insurgency by WBT's rightwing echo chamber, which gives an impression of more support for the anti-transit movement than is probably out there.

On the other side of the light rail issue are those who have a vision of Charlotte joining the ranks of progressive cities like, say, Portland, Ore., and who see the potential for more "urban villages" sprouting along the rail lines. Unfortunately, those folks' political water is being carried by the same uptown suits who let CATS director Ron Tober and City Manager Pam Syfert off the hook after revelations of a cost overrun cover-up. McCrory, Mumford, and other marionettes in the Chamber's "grassroots" puppet show apparently have no idea how transparent -- not to mention how distanced from most citizens' needs -- they've become.

I agree with some of the anti-transit folks' positions -- particularly their view of Uptown economic interests' death grip on local government -- but I can't go along with the short-sighted rightists who launched the referendum petition. First of all, any group that boasts former County Commissioner Jim "Screw all y'all Yankees" Puckett as co-chairman is immediately suspect in my book. Moreover, I've seen that light rail works as an efficient, essential mode of transportation worldwide, and there's no reason it couldn't work well here if it were done right. But that, of course, is the "Big If."

So far, light rail in Charlotte has been botched, and no one in power has been willing to take responsibility or, in fact, to do much about it at all, even when it was obvious that opposition to the plan was reaching critical mass. That, friends, is called the arrogance of power, and there's been an epidemic of it in the Government Center over the past few years.

Resentment of local government's high-handed, blinkered attitude toward citizen concerns has been building for years, often for good reasons. The fact that conservative activists and their supporters on WBT's talk shows have been able to milk that resentment for all it's worth shouldn't be nearly as surprising as it seems to be for some light rail supporters.

Former mayor pro tem Patrick Cannon nailed it recently when he said the transit tax brouhaha is "more than about transit." Part of that "more" is citizens' resentment at having to drive on lousy roads while tax money goes to the likes of Halls of Fame, new museums and, yes, light rail construction. Another part of "more" is the fact that the black community, as usual, will be the last to benefit from the city's light rail plan. Yet another is the community's deeply rooted discontent with the school system. But the King Daddy of local political resentment is still, of course, the disgust dredged up by the city's breathtakingly arrogant decision to build Bobcats Arena after citizens had strongly rejected it in a referendum.

So there you have the two sides in the light rail/transit tax debate. One, the anti-everything-but-roads rightists who've skillfully exploited citizen resentments against local government abuses. And two, the abusers themselves, the McCrorys and Mumfords and other powerbrokers who've shoved that power in citizens' faces the past few years, and who now have the gall to parade around as progressive urban visionaries. I'm reminded of the late author William S. Burroughs, one of whose characters in his novel Naked Lunch, famously said, "F--- 'em all. Squares on both sides."

I'm guessing that the repeal effort will fail. But if the county transit tax does go down in flames in November, taking the future of light rail in Charlotte with it, light rail's most prominent supporters will be just as responsible for the defeat as the suburban insurgents.

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