TRANSPORTATION:

N.C.'s sharp right turn threatens transit in 2 booming metro areas

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The blueprint for one of the most ambitious mass transit networks ever envisioned in the Southeast calls for some 72 miles of rail lines, rapid bus routes and even a streetcar here in North Carolina's largest metro area.

But eight years after its formal adoption, the transit plan is still short about $5 billion of what's needed for it to reach fruition, according to one estimate. As local revenue falls below expectations, no one is counting on the state to step in. Two years ago, the Republican-run General Assembly killed a program that covered 25 percent of initial construction and equipment costs for new rail lines.

The demise of the program here could crimp long-term plans for a transit web in the booming Triangle region, a three-county area anchored by the state capital, Raleigh. In Wake County -- the largest of the Triangle counties, with 1 million residents -- supporters are struggling to proceed with a referendum on raising the local sales tax to help cover the bill. Under a recently passed state law, that referendum can't be held until 2016 at the earliest. And last week, a separate attempt that could have further hamstrung that bid failed by only seven votes in the state House of Representatives.

"This is pretty harsh, but I would say from a transit perspective in North Carolina, the shouting's probably over, at least for the foreseeable future," said David Hartgen, a retired professor of transportation studies at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, who questions whether transit's predicted benefits outweigh the sometimes hefty expense.

Because of a quirk of history, North Carolina is responsible for one of the largest state-owned highway systems in the country, and funding for that network has been getting harder to find. But broader forces appear to be driving the latest policy shifts.

The 2010 turnover in party control of the state House and Senate empowered Republicans more likely to represent rural areas; it also gave a louder voice to conservative groups wary of urban transit initiatives -- light rail in particular -- and higher taxes to pay for them.

One is the John Locke Foundation, a Raleigh-based think tank. The foundation's backers have included the Koch brothers, financiers of conservative causes around the country, and Art Pope, the North Carolina discount store owner who helped underwrite the GOP's 2010 resurgence. Hartgen, now a consultant, is an adjunct scholar there.

At a March 2012 briefing for state legislative candidates, Michael Sanera, the foundation's then-research director, rapped transit agencies in a broader indictment of local government "tyranny," according to a video of the event posted on the organization's website.

Not only did such "professional bureaucracies" have taxing and eminent domain condemnation authority, but they were handing out "inaccurate and biased information," Sanera charged. Among other steps, he urged ending the state's rail program and requiring local sales tax referendums to be held only in even-numbered years.

Lawmakers have now largely followed suit on both proposals. Sanera has since retired. In a phone interview, John Hood, the foundation's president, said the group's message "likely" resonates more with the current crop of state lawmakers but added that they are also "following the data" on rail's value.

Transit advocates acknowledge the political barriers but say alternatives to the state's clogged roads are essential.

"We know that growth is coming. We know that we have to manage that growth and provide options for transportation in our communities," said Natalie English, senior vice president for public policy at the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce, credited as a key force in building and maintaining voter support for local transit funding. Also important, English said, is making the region appealing to younger millennial workers who don't want every trip around town to involve an automobile.

The friction leaves Gov. Pat McCrory (R) in an awkward spot. During 14 years as mayor of Charlotte, McCrory helped champion the area's transit drive. But since becoming governor last year, he has been "out to lunch" on the broader topic of transit funding, said Kym Hunter, a staff attorney and lobbyist for the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Spending on public transportation this fiscal year will total about $116 million, or less than 3 percent of the current $4.3 billion state transportation budget, according to official figures. Hunter fears that share could become smaller under a new transportation spending framework enacted last year at McCrory's urging.

"He just hasn't weighed in either way," she said in an interview, particularly on the situation in Raleigh and Wake County. The overall outlook, she added, is "deeply concerning."

Spokesmen for the governor did not reply to emailed questions seeking a response, but in an interview, state Rep. Frank Iler (R), who co-chairs the House Transportation Committee, cited what he said was one study's finding that "in order to have mass transit, you need more mass."

"We're not New York, we're not L.A., we're not Paris," Iler said when asked about lawmakers' decision to end state rail funding. "It's a spread-out rural situation where you'd have to have many lines to provide a lot of service."

Transit's role in Southeast 'megalopolis'

Entwined in the debate are thorny questions over how much payoff transit can deliver in the sprawling, car-centric cities of the Sunbelt, where a low-density suburban lifestyle evolved in tandem with development of the interstate highway system.

If regional growth continues on the same galloping trajectory, the area from Raleigh to Atlanta could be a single connected "megalopolis" by 2060, researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey and North Carolina State University concluded in a recent paper.

"It's not just about mobility. It's also about community-building, vitality, sparking economic growth," said Art Guzzetti, vice president of policy for the American Public Transportation Association, a national organization of local and regional transit agencies.

Anthony Foxx, a Democrat who succeeded McCrory as mayor, was an enthusiastic transit booster; Guzzetti sees that advocacy as one factor in President Obama's decision last year to name Foxx to lead the U.S. Transportation Department.

In Charlotte, for example, average weekday ridership of about 15,000 on the one completed segment of light rail -- an almost 10-mile stretch known as the Lynx Blue Line that runs on street level between downtown and a station on the city's southern edge -- is well ahead of original projections.

Overall, however, the percentage of workers in Charlotte and surrounding Mecklenburg County who drive to and from work alone remained around 83 percent from 2000 to 2011, according to a report released earlier this month by Sustain Charlotte, a nonpartisan group that backs transit expansion.

At the Charlotte Area Transit System, officials tout more than $1.4 billion worth of anticipated investment along the Blue Line corridor by next year, as a scruffy industrial area gives way to new apartment buildings, shops and restaurants -- and leads to higher-density living.

"We don't expect people to throw their car keys away, but we are an option," said Tina Votaw, a specialist in transit-oriented development for the system.

Hartgen, who notes that he has also been critical of some highway projects, likened the emphasis on development to a form of crony capitalism that benefits builders more than the public. Much of the new construction is speculative and would have occurred anyway, albeit in other neighborhoods, he said.

"It's not a net gain for the region," Hartgen said. "It's a redistribution within the region."

Go -- and stop

Transit initiatives are well-known for proceeding in fits and starts. In a recently released survey of 32 federally funded projects from around the country, the Government Accountability Office found the development times ranged as high as 14 years.

In Charlotte's case, the gestation period has been exceptionally long, with attempts to build beyond the culture of cars and asphalt dating back to the late 1970s.

As traffic congestion worsened, road widening and other standard remedies could only go so far. Furthermore, Charlotte -- now the hub of a 10-county metro area with more than 2.3 million people -- was poised to become "a large, important city, and large, important cities have public transportation systems for a lot of people," said Mary Newsom, associate director of urban and regional affairs at UNC Charlotte's Urban Institute.

The tipping point came in 1998. By a 58-percent-to-42-percent margin, voters approved a half-cent local sales tax increase earmarked exclusively for transit.

Groundbreaking for the Lynx Blue Line arrived in 2005; its opening in late 2007 drew a comparison to the landing of a professional sports franchise, according to a report at the time in The Charlotte Observer. The state's contribution was essential, covering $115 million of the $463 million price tag.

By that point, local leaders from around the Charlotte-Mecklenburg County area had coalesced around the long-term blueprint now dubbed the "2030 Transit Plan," which outlined five more transit corridors, including an extension of the Blue Line to the UNC Charlotte campus, a commuter rail line and the streetcar.

Work on the almost $1.2 billion extension and the first phase of the streetcar line is already underway. Although the General Assembly is honoring the state's commitment to pump in almost $300 million to the extension project via the defunct rail program, lawmakers are stretching out those payments over a decade, said John Muth, deputy director for the Charlotte transit system, meaning that borrowed money will have to fill the gap. At the same time, local sales tax revenue -- which makes up about two-thirds of the system's annual $100 million budget -- has never fully recovered from the 2007-09 recession.

While Charlotte can still compete for state help under the new formula, "it's going to be much more difficult to get funding for future projects," Muth said.

Other obstacles loom. Norfolk Southern Corp., for example, doesn't want the commuter rail line running on its tracks. A working group assembled last year by Foxx not long before his departure for Washington concluded that another $5 billion for construction and operating expenses is needed by 2045. While the group recommended exploring public-private partnerships and again raising the sales tax, some of those steps would require legislative approval.

Fate of Triangle's light-rail project

The state cutbacks could also dent hopes for a light-rail system in the Triangle.

"There's no doubt that it increases significantly the obligation on the part of the locals to fund the program," said Paul Morris, who served as the state Transportation Department's deputy secretary for transit between 2011 and last year under then-Gov. Beverly Perdue (D).

Area Democrats are also chafing at what they view as legislative interference in local affairs. In the Triangle, voters in Durham and Orange counties have already approved a half-cent local sales tax to pay for a regional network. The holdup has been in Wake County, which has a larger population than the other two combined.

In recent years, the seven-member county board of commissioners, on which Republicans hold a 4-3 majority, has bottled up attempts to proceed with a similar vote. But with all four of those Republicans up for re-election this year, they've lately shown signs of giving ground. Under recently approved changes to state elections law, however, the referendum can't be held until 2016, dashing transit backers' hopes of putting the proposed sale tax hike on next year's ballot.

They've also became embroiled in GOP jockeying over a bill to limit counties' ability to raise local sales taxes at all. In a particularly complex maneuver last week, General Assembly leaders sought to link a measure that could have hampered the Wake County effort to unrelated legislation to expand incentives that would lure companies to locate in North Carolina.

The legislative gambit, which proved too much even for some House Republicans to swallow, went down to defeat on a 47-54 vote. In an interview beforehand, state Sen. Josh Stein, a Raleigh Democrat, denounced the sales tax bill as "a heavy-handed approach" to dictate policy to the county.

Lawmakers are now out of session. Given the split within the GOP, Karen Rindge, leader of a Wake County advocacy group that favors the transit plan, doubted that Republican leaders would attempt to revive that specific measure. She didn't rule out other tactics in pursuit of the same goal.

"Anything seems to be possible with this General Assembly," she said.

Twitter: @SeanatGreenwire | Email: sreilly@eenews.net

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