On November 6, Mecklenburg County voters can help derail the “folly trolley” by repealing the transit tax. Charlotte citizens deserve a more sensible and affordable public transit plan than the one currently being foisted upon them by area planners. Repealing this half-cent sales tax seems to be the only option that will force local policymakers to reconsider a transit plan whose estimated costs have already ballooned sevenfold.
When voting on the transit tax in 1998, voters were passing judgment on a plan government officials claimed would cost an estimated $1.1 billion. This initiative has morphed into today’s 2030 Corridor System Plan developed by CATS now pegged at a cost of $8.9 billion. Mecklenburg County taxpayers should feel duped by this 700 percent increase in project costs, which has turned out to be little more than an expensive bait and switch.
The CATS plan incorporates a two-pronged approach to alleviating the anticipated traffic congestion coming to greater Charlotte. A combination of increased public bussing along with the construction of five “transit corridors” – anchored by light rail and commuter rail lines – is promised to do the trick.
Predicted benefits from the transit plan, however, will be so small as to be immaterial. Traffic congestion will not be relieved by any noticeable degree. For example, CATS projects an additional 250,000 residents along the North Line corridor by 2030, but only 4,600 daily light rail riders; the remaining 245,400 will apparently have to battle each other on neglected roads and highways.
CATS’ already low ridership projections may even be overly generous. A recently released poll by the Raleigh-based Civitas Institute asked Mecklenburg voters “How often do you plan on using the light rail system?” A whopping 59 percent said not at all. Only 17 percent planned to use it once a month or more. These numbers do not bode well for transit tax supporters.
Defenders of the transit tax hail the addition of new buses, new routes and increased ridership since its implementation. Ridership in Charlotte’s bus system may have increased 52 percent from 1997 to 2005, but operating costs shot up 234 percent. Moreover, the operating costs per trip grew by 119 percent after the infusion of transit tax funds. It seems guaranteed funding by the transit tax enabled transit bureaucrats to throw money into the system with little regard for efficiency.
The early results for the first light rail line (along South Blvd.) are equally discouraging. The South Corridor light rail project has produced less track line at a higher cost than originally estimated. 1998 estimates predicted a rail line covering 11 miles while costing $227 million. Revised figures show the miles shrinking to 9.6 with the cost shooting up to $463 million.
Transit tax proponents claim that if the one-half cent sales tax is repealed, property taxes will have to be raised to finance the massive Corridor System Plan. Not exactly. The biggest threat to upward pressure on property taxes comes simply from continuing with the current transit plan unabated.
The reality of the situation is that the cost of the current transit plan far outpaces expected revenues. CATS estimates that the transit tax will bring in only about $5 billion to help pay for the $9 billion Corridor System Plan. Federal and state funding was supposed to cover much of the entire project, but ridership projections are too low to qualify for any further federal funds. (Note: According to a November 2 Charlotte Observer article, the Federal Transit Authority has agreed to help pay for engineering costs on the light rail line to University City, contributing an estimated $375 million. This amount represents less than 10 percent of the $4 billion funding gap.) The end result: local taxes must be raised to finance the balance.
According to UNC Charlotte professor David Hartgen, if the Corridor System Plan is fully implemented, 60 percent of total transportation spending in Mecklenburg County will be devoted to just 2 percent of area trips. Not a very good return on investment, even by government standards.
These numbers should lead Mecklenburg taxpayers to ask if they really want to allow this extravagant transit plan to continue unchecked. A repeal of the transit tax will force planners to go back to the drawing board and devise a more sensible and affordable transportation plan. Any project that outpaces estimated costs by more than 700 percent surely deserves a second look.
Failure to repeal the transit tax will amount to approval of government excess, wasteful spending and a guarantee of more tax increases in the future.