Friday's Observer editorial:
It took more than four years, but Mecklenburg County voters were rewarded for their wisdom this week.
A surprisingly large majority of voters – 70 percent – made an unmistakable statement in November 2007 when they rejected an effort to repeal Mecklenburg’s half-cent sales tax for transit. With that commitment demonstrated, the nation’s top transit official this week announced a federal pledge of $70 million for Charlotte’s light-rail extension and a near-promise of $460 million more to come later.
That $530 million would pay half the cost of extending the Lynx Blue Line from uptown to UNC Charlotte, with the state and Charlotte Area Transit System splitting the other half. Nothing’s certain until final paperwork is signed, but Tuesday’s news could help shape Charlotte’s growth for decades to come.
The Blue Line, which currently runs from Pineville to uptown, would continue to UNCC by late 2017 or early 2018. That would connect the university, its 25,000 students and the surrounding area to uptown and its campus there. With gas currently pushing $4 a gallon and no sign of a return to cheap fuel, the line will be part of a system that gives commuters more options.
Done right, it can help reduce the number of cars on the road, cut emissions, spark development along the line and create jobs. While we’re skeptical that the North Tryon corridor will quickly attract development, the southern portion of the line showed that potential. Developers in the pre-recession days added hundreds of millions worth of projects along that corridor, driving up land values and tax collections.
The north line was originally planned to run to I-485. Planners later ended it at UNCC to save $92 million. It was a necessary move given the recession’s toll on the sales tax, but a regrettable one. A large park-and-ride station at I-485 would have attracted riders from across that part of the county.
CATS could still extend the line to I-485, or even farther into Cabarrus County and toward Verizon Amphitheatre and Charlotte Motor Speedway, which would attract riders. That can’t happen without more money, though. As the chart below shows, CATS has had to scale back its sales tax projections by more than $2 billion over 30 years. That not only shrunk the Blue Line but limits CATS’ ability to build more transit on other routes to the north, west and south.
Cabarrus County and others have the state’s permission to hold referendums on creating a quarter-cent sales tax for transit. And CATS will eventually have to look at other approaches, such as tax increment financing and other tax districts.
In the meantime, CATS can build public support for such moves by making sure the Blue Line extension is built on time and on budget, something it failed to do on its first try to the south.
Thursday, February 16, 2012
Friday's Observer editorial: