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.
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.