Regional cooperation at risk?

The implied threat Monday from Charlotte City Council members, to withdraw support for the proposed Monroe Bypass, is more fallout from an increasingly fractious local political battle over control of Charlotte’s airport.  And now, that battle might be putting at risk some long-nurtured regional cooperation.

Civic leaders in the Charlotte region have worked for years to keep conversation flowing, as the city’s footprint has expanded, and as suburban growth has swelled population in nearby counties. Regional-focused concerns that cross boundaries include water quality and water supply/watershed issues, air quality, job creation, transportation and transit. Indeed, when the Mecklenburg County sales tax for transit was adopted in 1998, there was plenty of talk about the possibility Cabarrus, Union or York counties might, at some future point, contribute revenue to expand the transit system beyond Mecklenburg.

So a tit-for-tat standoff, if it’s taken seriously and continues, could have larger repercussions.

Monday, the Charlotte City Council directed its representative to a key regional transportation planning group to seek a re-vote on a nonbinding resolution the group had passed supporting a proposed toll road through Union County, the Monroe Bypass.  And one council member suggested the city should rethink its participation in regional groups such as the Charlotte Regional Partnership.

It’s important to note here that the vote at issue, by the Mecklenburg Union Metropolitan Planning Agency (MUMPO)* was not one that would affect funding for the bypass, which has been in the Long Range Transportation Plan since 2002. It was a March 20 measure, sought by the Union County Chamber of Commerce, “Resolution to Support Prompt Action for the Construction of the Monroe Bypass,” MUMPO secretary Robert Cook said Tuesday. (Update: The City Council representative to MUMPO, Michael Barnes, ended up not bringing the matter up after all.)

Why the Charlotte council maneuver? It’s all part of continuing anger among City Council members of both parties over a bill in the legislature that would strip the city of its control of Charlotte/Douglas International Airport by creating a state-appointed regional authority and would transfer the airport-owned property to the state. The measure, sponsored in the N.C. Senate by Sen. Bob Rucho and in the N.C. House by Rep. Bill Brawley, both Matthews Republicans, as well as Rep. Ruth Samuelson, a Charlotte Republican, passed the Senate and is being considered in the House.

Meanwhile, county commissioners in Union, Gaston, Lincoln and Iredell counties have passed resolutions supporting the measure. None talked with Charlotte city officials before taking those votes, and Charlotte city officials have made clear their displeasure.  (See “Regional counties jump into airport fray, support regional board” and “Charlotte airport fight pits city against region.”)

“It makes you not want to get involved in regional efforts at all.”

– Charlotte  City Council's David Howard

Last week, council member David Howard, who in the past has spoken up in favor of regional cooperation, told the Charlotte Observer: “It makes you not want to get involved in regional efforts at all.” Howard told the Observer he wondered whether Charlotte should continue to support the construction of the Garden Parkway and the Monroe Connector-Bypass – two toll roads proposed for Gaston and Union counties, whose boards voted in favor of the airport authority bill.

Howard is the Charlotte City Council representative to MUMPO, a regional transportation planning group that must sign off on state transportation projects in the Charlotte region. He said his vote supporting the Monroe Bypass resolution came before Union County voted in favor of taking Charlotte airport control away from the City of Charlotte.  

Howard suggested that the council should tell its MUMPO representative to seek a revote, and on a motion from council member Warren Cooksey, the council did just that, unanimously.

Because MUMPO votes are weighted by population, Charlotte has 16 votes out of 38. In other words, it’s fairly easy for Charlotte to carry the day. And while un-supporting the Monroe highway project wouldn’t have specific funding repercussions, it could potentially set in motion a further round of non-cooperation measures among regional counties.

The MUMPO meeting is 7 p.m. today at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center. Council member Michael Barnes will represent Charlotte at that meeting.

A few minutes before Howard brought up the Monroe Bypass, council member Andy Dulin asked city staff for information about how much money the city spends on regional groups, including the Centralina Council of Governments and the Charlotte Regional Partnership, a 16-county economic development agency. “If we talk about COG we got to talk about the Regional Partnership,” Dulin said.

No council action was taken on that suggestion. It might well have been simply political gamesmanship – the tossing of a gauntlet, if you will.  The COG and Regional Partnership don’t really have anything to do with the airport proposal.

Cooperation across city limits and county lines is not easy for understandable reasons of politics, local pride and the fact of Charlotte’s size compared with the other cities and counties in the region.  Yet a metropolitan economy exists regardless of political boundaries. Transportation systems and environmental problems don’t respect lines on a map, either. Building trust across county lines, in hopes of more effectively tackling those regional issues, has taken decades and hundreds of conversations, planning efforts large and small, and multiple chicken-dinner meetings.

The question is whether the trust that’s been built is strong enough to survive what may turn into an especially rough patch for regional efforts.

* In March, the planning agency known as MUMPO officially changed its name, because of the addition of portions of Iredell and Lincoln counties to the planning jurisdiction. It’s now the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization.