What’s next for transit in Mecklenburg County? “We’re stuck,” says Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx.
Foxx said Wednesday that while he’s optimistic the Blue Line Extension will be funded, “Sales tax revenues won’t support anything else.”
The mayor also said the City Council will hold meetings this fall on the future of the city’s five-year Capital Investment Plan. That proposal for $926 million in projects, which would have meant a tax increase for city property owners of 3.6 cents per $100 in assessed value, failed to pass the council in June. The plan would have spent $119 million to expand the city’s fledgling streetcar line and $35 million to help build a cross-city multi-use trail, among many other things.
PlanCharlotte.org director Mary Newsom interviewed Foxx about those topics and others. His answers, edited for brevity and clarity:
Q. The city’s proposed $926 million, five-year Capital Investment Plan didn’t pass the City Council in June. What happens next?
A. We’re going to initiate budget retreats in the fall. We normally do budget retreats in the spring. Because the capital issues are relatively static, we can go ahead and initiate further conversation about the capital budget in the fall. We’ll still look at the operating budget in the spring, as normal. But I’m hopeful that we can come to some agreement by the end of the calendar year.
Q. If a bond referendum comes out of it, when would that be?
A. It’s up to the council. My counsel would be to put something on the ballot in 2013.
Q. Even though that’s a City Council election year?
A. It’d be an odd duck. But the clock is ticking on the Triple-A bond rating and I don’t want us tempting fate on that.
Q. Would you envision a tax increase coming out of the capital budget plan?
A. I don’t see a way to have a capital plan over multiple years without one. I wish I could say differently. We really, literally cannot develop a capital budget without asking citizens for more resources.
Q. What were your “lessons learned” from this year’s city budget process? It was really weird.
A. I’ve never seen a process like it, where we go through our budget straw vote process where individual members can raise issues about specific line items, and except for Mr. [Warren] Cooksey, who came with a full-blown proposal, you could have heard crickets chirping.
To go from essentially a 9-2 level of support for the budget, and then a week and a half later to 5-6 is pretty remarkable. Having talked to council members both before and after, I think some people were literally making their minds up in the chambers.
That kind of thing happens, and each individual member has their own reason for going a certain direction. If we’re not careful, we can all more easily be against bad things happening than we can be for good things happening. One challenge I have is helping the council develop a cohesive view of what we should be urging citizens to be for.
Q. In hindsight, do you wish you had done things differently – other than read their minds?
A. I do wish I was a soothsayer! I was criticized for not doing things that I did, including contacting individual council members. Some members were more interested in talking about DNC tickets than they were in the budget.
|“If the goal is to ... help neighborhoods that have been left behind, it would have been smarter to have done it 20 years ago.”|
I think our process is insulated. Our budget retreats, while they’re public, there’s not a whole lot of pushing out to the community. I tried to do a couple of town hall meetings during the spring, to get input and to share with the public some of the challenges. But our process doesn’t lend itself to massive public outreach. For a budget that’s trying to do big things and asking people to commit more resources, one of my hopes is that as we go through the fall we invest more time helping the community understand the choices.
It is a hard time to ask people for more resources for the city. You shouldn’t do that without a good reason. I think the reasons exist.
If the goal is to get the city reinvigorated and help neighborhoods that have been left behind, it would have been smarter to have done it 20 years ago, but we’re at a point where if they sink much further it’s going to be much more expensive to bring those places back.
Q. What happens next on the city’s transit plan?
A. We’re stuck.
We’ve had to fight like heck to get the Blue Line Extension in a good position. With the [county half-cent-for-transit] sales tax declines and federal policy changes it’s become a lot murkier. Yet working together on a bipartisan basis at local, state and federal levels I’m confident that by the end of the year we’re going to see the federal government give us the green light and a full funding grant agreement for the Blue Line Extension.
Q. But after the BLE?
A. That’s where I say we’re stuck. Sales tax revenues won’t support anything else. Yet I refuse to believe that the best we can do as a community is to have a north-south line and nothing else.
We’ve gotten Norfolk Southern engaged on the North commuter line. There’s an elaborate planning process; they need to be at the table working through issues before we can roll out a finance plan. But the finance plan’s going to have to include a multijurisdictional approach to financing and probably a heavy use of TIF [tax-increment financing – for a full explanation of TIF and its potential uses in Charlotte, click here to download a PDF report].
|“The same arguments people leveled against the light rail line, they’re leveling against the streetcar.”|
The streetcar is another critical part of the transit system, and with no sales tax capacity that project is just as imperiled as the North commuter line.
What is interesting about the streetcar is that the same arguments people leveled against the light rail line, they’re leveling against the streetcar. Somehow the North commuter line escapes those same issues.
I think the streetcar may, in many ways, provide us with more upside, in invigorating parts of our community that have historically been underutilized. I think the streetcar is going to pack a real punch. We’ve got some perception issues to deal with but I’m convinced the case can be made. The first argument people made about the streetcar when we started going for the federal grant, they called it the streetcar to nowhere. Embedded in a lot of the criticism is a perception about East Charlotte and West Charlotte that we’ve got to work harder to disabuse.
Q. There’s a big arc of neighborhoods wrapping around the center city where property values are declining or not growing, and poverty levels are rising. What do the city and the whole community do about this looming problem?
A. That’s a lot of what the capital plan was about. I did not run for this office to preside over a steady, slow, quiet decline of the city. And yet in some corners of our city the neglect has piled up over years and years and years, and it’s starting to show itself.
A combination of strategies is going to have to be used. There will have to be some public investment to help turn the tide in some parts of the city. It’s going to have to be smart investment. One change in the neighborhood improvement program that we want is to stop sprinkling small projects all over the city and target some parts of the city for bigger investments. We’ll do fewer projects but they’ll be more impactful, involving the county and the school system.
I think our zoning and land use regulations need to be looked at again. That’s why the planning department is undertaking a study.
And we’re going to have to make our case to the private sector as well, on some topics. For instance we have a stakeholder group working for about a year and a half on inclusionary zoning [and other tools to help build affordable housing]. Some of the recommendations have been moving through the council, but the big ones are still stuck. We need to get those unstuck.
We’ve got to continue doing the things that are going to keep vibrant the areas that are growing, but the challenge is that we’ve got to see more vibrancy in other parts of the city.
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