Comment and analysis on all things Charlotte

Mary Newsom vs. Reality

I fully expected the Observer’s Mary Newsom to lash out in the wake of revelations that all is not as advertised with the UNCC transit study she so breathlessly touted to the world back on May 7th. I erroneously assumed, however, that her reaction might mirror that of WFAE’s Mike Collins, a light rail fan who was similarly misled about the study’s origins, yet who was very direct and forceful in questioning the study’s main author Edd Hauser on Monday about his previous dissembling.

Not so Mary.

She has opted to strike out against anyone who thinks that Charlotte should not spend $9 billion on a mass transit plan that will do next to nothing to improve traffic congestion now or for the next 20 years.

This paragraph lays bare her fantastic assumptions delivered with a veneer of vituperation wholly misplaced:

If you’re thinking mass transit is a creature birthed and nurtured by Charlotte’s business oligarchy then you are uninformed about Charlotte. For about, oh, the past century or so it was the conservative business oligarchy here that fought the concept of any government-funded public transit. They kept a pitiful bus system running on fumes and pennies — and extremely high fares — because business leaders didn’t want their taxes raised just to make life easier for low-income mill workers and black people. It’s still the ultra-right-wing descendants of those anti-tax businessmen who are fighting the transit tax now.

Where to begin?

How about with Hugh McColl in Europe?

“After I got out of the Marine Corps, I won some money in poker and took a two-month tour of Europe,” McColl told a Sierra Club magazine last year. “Their cities didn’t have our suburban mishmash. Their cities had borders. I liked that.”

Thus spake St. McColl, opting for a Portland-style development boundary years before the fact.

But Charlotte’s corporate-city alliance in support of transit is not so ephemeral as Charlotte’s future banking titan slumming across Europe for 77-days on his gambling winnings.

Those with long memories of official Charlotte missteps will recall the great bus shelter-brick paver fiasco of the 1980s, during which time the attempt to install expensive bus shelters and pavers along Tryon Street resulted in shelters that did not shelter and pavers that cracked under the weight of buses.

Soon thereafter in the early 90s McColl, who was building the NationsBank tower aka Taj McColl on that same Tryon Street, decided that Charlotte needed a Transit Center so that buses would stop stacking up in front of his new building.

Let’s pick up a National Center for Transit Research account from there, in numbing if authoritative detail:

There are also unconfirmed stories that the corporate community was concerned that the white collar professional business district was being dominated by the blue-collar service workers that constituted the majority of the bus ridership waiting along Tryon Street.

Mr. McColl requested a meeting with city managers to discuss his thoughts for how these issues could be resolved. He believed a dedicated transit transfer center should be built as close to the center of downtown as possible. Many downtown employees, including his own employees, used the bus to get to work, and a transfer center needed to be located as close as possible to the concentration of jobs. A transfer center located away from Tryon Street would help relieve the traffic congestion that would soon get much worse, and provide appropriate shelter and convenience for passengers who were transferring from one bus to another. There were also other government jobs and services located in “Uptown Charlotte” that were not as accessible to bus passengers as they might be if the transfer activity took place a few blocks south of Tryon.

Mr. McColl asked city managers how much it would cost to build a transit center within a short walking distance of the heart of downtown. The city owned a 2.5 acre parcel of land within two blocks of Tryon that was used for surface parking. They also advised Mr. McColl that the cost to build such a center would, of course, vary depending on the features of the center. Three scenarios were developed, one calling for a minimalist center that simply called for bus bays, shelters, lighting, restrooms, and some form of customer information that would cost approximately $3 million. The second scenario called for a more elaborate facility with a single roof covering the entire site along with the amenities noted above and a drivers’ lounge. That sort of facility was estimated to cost approximately $6 million. The third scenario called for all the features included in the first two scenarios, but also called for mixed uses for retail shopping, restaurants, full customer information services, offices for community services, and excellent security. This third option was estimated to cost $9.6 million to construct. Mr. McColl told the city managers that he thought the third scenario was clearly the preferred alternative. He also offered for Bank of America to pay for the construction of the facility if the city would donate the land noted above.

By almost any standard, this would be regarded as quite a generous gesture by a corporate citizen. As noted earlier, some suggest that another motive behind building the Transportation Center was to move the primarily lower income bus passengers off Tryon Street which also serves as the gateway to the city center. In fact, it is quite likely that a number of people probably felt uncomfortable going through “the gauntlet“ of bus passengers as they walked to their offices or other places of employment or shopping destinations on Tryon Street. Similarly, businesses probably did not feel comfortable with dozens of bus passengers in front of their doors who had no plans to shop at their business. Even if there might have been some class-bigotry involved, the development of the Charlotte Transportation Center has ultimately proven to be a win-win-win solution. It is hardly as if the bus transfer center was shunted away to some hidden spot. It is only two blocks south of “The Square” and is in the middle of a booming downtown. … The Charlotte Transportation Center is regarded as a private facility in spite of its very public purpose. City managers formed a partnership with the Bank of America to establish a private entity, known as Charlotte Transit Center, Inc., to govern and manage the transportation center. Its four-member board, comprised of two city representatives and two Bank of America representatives, approves the budget and sets priorities for the facility annually. A budget of $2.2 million was established for managing, maintaining, and operating the facility in 2004. The Charlotte Area Transit System pays 75 percent of these costs, while the Bank of America pays the remaining 25 percent. Management of the facility is taken very seriously. Lincoln Harris, a property management firm that provides management services to Bank of America, provides such services to Charlotte Transit Center, Inc. on a pro bono basis, courtesy of Bank of America. This is not a trivial contribution, as a very experienced and skillful property manager spends approximately 75 percent of his time at the facility. In effect, Bank of America has become responsible for the risk and responsibility associated with the facility, but in return they wanted control of its operations.

CATS floated the idea of taking sole control of the Center in 2005, but that idea was dropped in 2006 “after a number of meetings with Bank of America officials.”

This is merely the most direct link between CATS and Charlotte’s corporate interests. One of the primary goals of CATS’ expanded service — bus and rail — since the transit plans of the mid-90s has been to subsidize the commuting employees of Uptown employers. This frees them of the need to provide parking lots or garages, space which can be put to more profitable uses as offices and condos. Thus Charlotte’s business power is overwhelmingly behind CATS and against repeal of the half-cent transit tax. No serious person can argue otherwise.

Further support for the notion that the current transit plan as corporate-friendly was found in CATS going to Iredell County this spring to ask for funding of the North line commuter rail plan on the grounds that it would save Lowe’s $12,000 per parking space at its headquarters.

For good or ill — and I would say very ill — Charlotte’s current transit plan is a massive corporate subsidy disguised as a “sensible” reaction to “growth” with a layer of SimCity “place making” on top to keep the Smart Growth propeller-heads happy.

Newsom is perfectly welcome to argue that this confluence of interests still makes the current policy a net good for local residents at-large, but she does not do that. Instead she, in so many words, calls opponents of the current transit plan racists.

I should be deeply offended, but for some reason I find myself relieved that this canard is finally out in the open. It will be so much easier to dispatch in the coming weeks.

Likewise, I relish to chance to again say that, contra Newsom, repealing the half-cent is not about turning the clock back, it is about speeding it up. I want Charlotte to completely skip over the largely pointless exercise of building a huge light rail system and public-sector workforce to support it that will waste billions of dollars and instead head straight for 21st century solutions like telecommuting or HOT lanes.

I also want to accelerate the fiscal day of reckoning that the city of Charlotte must face regarding a transit plan it cannot afford. Right now, the current plan will involve a “realization” by 2010 or ’11 or ’13 that CATS cannot possibly complete and operate and pay the debt on all the projects it has started with just the half-cent transit tax and fanciful tax increment financing assumptions — oh, no.

Remember, CATS is currently racing to win approval from the Metropolitan Transit Commission for financing plans on another one billion worth of trains. The goal is to get far enough down the path to building them that turning back will be off the table.

The choice Charlotte taxpayers will then face is property tax hikes — remember, Mary claims it is impossible to go to the General Assembly for other options — or walking away from tens, perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars sunk in the ground — recall that CATS has repeatedly used this gambit in the past with much smaller amounts — or defaulting on debt issued to pay for the rail lines, an option that would send shockwaves through the city and county budgets for years to come.

Much better, it would seem to any rational person, to face head-on, with six months and $35 million worth of cushion, a public opinion consensus, and solid research, the understanding that Charlotte needs a new, more efficient transit and transportation plan.

Thus spake the oligarchy.

12 Responses to “Mary Newsom vs. Reality”

  • Jul
    06
    2007

    You bigot you.

  • Jul
    06
    2007

    Dale Johnson said…
    SOP is that Morgan goes to Hauser, contracts for the study, and pays for, and gets listed as a partner in the report. The way it did happen appears against UNC policy, a policy designed to protect the integrity of the unversity and it’s studies.
    *****************************************
    Highlites from UNC policy:

    UNIVERSITY RESEARCH RELATIONS WITH GOVERNMENT AGENCIES AND PRIVATE ENTITIES
    A. Appropriateness of University Research
    All activities of the University of North Carolina, including research collaborations with private entities, foundations, and government agencies, must support its teaching, research, and public service missions. The University environment must allow faculty and students to freely pursue learning and research. The University must also maintain its independence and integrity to assure impartiality, and it may not agree to any inappropriate limits on the freedom to publish research findings. Most importantly, the University must retain the public’s trust by engaging in research activities that are consistent in nature, quality, scope, and importance with its mission, and that are conducted under conditions that ensure its academic integrity. The chancellors are the responsible officers for the administration of this policy and they are to take such steps as are necessary to maintain it.

    THE UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA POLICY ON RESEARCH MISCONDUCT
    I. Research Defined. Research means a systematic investigation, including research development, testing, and evaluation, designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge. For the purposes of this Policy, Research includes all basic, applied, and demonstration research in all academic and scholarly fields. Research fields include, but are not limited to, the arts, the sciences, liberal arts, applied sciences, social sciences, the professions, and research involving human subjects or animals.
    II. Research Misconduct Defined. Research misconduct is defined as fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism in proposing, performing, or reviewing research, or in reporting the results.
    a. Fabrication is making up data or results and recording or reporting them.
    b. Falsification is manipulating research materials, equipment, or processes, or changing or omitting data or results such that the research is not accurately represented in the research record. The research record is the record of data or results that embody the facts resulting from the research inquiry and includes, but is not limited to research proposals, laboratory records, both physical and electronic, progress reports, abstracts, these, oral presentations, internal reports, books, dissertations, and journal articles.
    c. Plagiarism is the appropriation of another person’s ideas, processes, results, or words without giving appropriate credit.
    d. Research misconduct does not include honest error or differences of opinion.
    III. Findings of Research Misconduct. A finding of research misconduct requires that:
    a. There is a significant departure from accepted practices of the relevant research community; and
    b. The misconduct is committed intentionally, or knowingly, or recklessly; and
    c. The allegation is proven by a preponderance of evidence.

    The UNC Policy Manual: 300.2.2

    B. Conflict of interest relates to situations in which financial or other personal considerations may compromise, may involve the potential for compromising, or may have the appearance of compromising an employee’s objectivity in meeting University duties or responsibilities, including research activities. The bias that such conflicts may impart can affect many University duties, including decisions about personnel, the purchase of equipment and other supplies, the collection, analysis and interpretation of data, the sharing of research results, the choice of research protocols, the use of statistical methods, and the mentoring and judgment of student work. An EPA employee may have a conflict of interest when he or she, or any member of that person’s immediate family, has a personal interest in an activity that may affect decision making with respect to University teaching, research, or administration.
    ***************************************************

    The request came through unusual channels, UNCC lawyers had to clear it, almost everyone had to distance themselves from it, wrote off on knowing the Charlotte Chamber’s involvement was obscured, was given the opportunity to comment on the study before it was released, didn’t credit the study as being done for the Chamber, didn’t charge the Chamber for the study, and lied repeatedly to the media about the instigation of the study, and at least two other peer reviewers, done only after the release of the study, have noted significant errors in the study, which was overwhelmingly in favor of CATS, the group about which the Chamber submitted questions to the university to be answered in the study. Nope, nothing done wrong there, so says the Charlotte Observer op-ed today. The Observer seems to thing policies aren’t needed and don’t have to be followed to maintain the integrity of the UNC schools. The Observer seems to think that studies with hidden instigation, significant errors and questionable selection of data constitute “solid information.”

    Policy appears not to have been followed. What are the penalties? What investigation and review does policy require? Not only did the chancellor not take steps to prevent this, he participated in it, so it would seem. I’ve posed the question to the Board of Trustees and the Board of Governors and expect to hear back early next week. But it is disappointing to see that the Observer appears only working their position rather than actually working the story and following up on leads and questions.

  • Jul
    06
    2007

    Now that I ponder on it a bit, all the cast of characters at UNCC might have to resign their positions over this conspiracy and fraud, even if the study is actually independent and unbaised. Violations of an honor “code”, violaions of policy that pointedly destroy the integrity of the University, are traditionally dealt with sternly, are they not?

  • Jul
    07
    2007

    You know who I just hate? Low-income mill workers. That is why I so dislike John Edwards.

  • Jul
    07
    2007

    Jeff, that is funny on multiple levels. :-)

  • Jul
    07
    2007

    Thank you! Two shows daily. Tip your wait staff!

  • Jul
    09
    2007

    I wonder if it ever occurred to Hugh McColl that European cities have borders because most were created during a time when they had to protect themselves from warring hordes of Huns, Sarazens, Norman swine, Saxon dogs and jealous neighboring princes. That’s why they have walls and castles, and are likely set atop a hill with view all around. That closeness was not for aesthetics, it was for survival. The helicopter shots of the Tour de France show this quite dramatically.

  • Jul
    09
    2007

    I also love how both Harvey Gantt and Tom Cox (D and R, respectively) have declared their love affair with Paris to have been a prime mover in the decisions they made for Charlotte while in local government.

    Nevermind that the Paris we know today — wide streets and sidewalks too wide to barricade, all with links to train stations where troops could be off-loaded — was designed as a reaction to the riots of 1848.

    So yes, Charlotte’s oh sophisticated class wants the best land-use planning of circa 1860 autocrats.

    Which, in the Queen City, makes a weird kinda sense.

  • Jul
    14
    2007

    [...] Finally, we must note that the Uptown paper of record has not exactly covered itself in glory in this matter. [...]

  • Jul
    14
    2007

    [...] Finally, we must note that the Uptown paper of record has not exactly covered itself in glory in this matter. [...]

  • Jul
    14
    2007

    [...] Finally, we must note that the Uptown paper of record has not exactly covered itself in glory in this matter. [...]

  • Jul
    19
    2007

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