Why the North Carolina legislature seems to hate big-city transit

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If you’re an N.C. city transit planner, you probably have a big question: Why does the General Assembly hate mass transit?

For the past three years, North Carolina’s state government has seemed to continually attack light rail projects like Charlotte’s beloved Blue Line.

  • In 2015, the legislature barred the state from contributing more than $500,000 to a light rail project.
  • A year later, this was changed to a maximum of 10 percent of the project’s cost.
  • This year, the General Assembly added a new rule that the state won’t give money to light rail or other mass transit projects unless all of the other funding is already secured.

With all these new laws, there’s virtually no way that Charlotte would be able to build its Blue Line today. The state of North Carolina paid about one-quarter of the cost of both the original light rail and the extension.

Other urban areas in the state — most notably the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill — are now complaining that the Republican-led state legislature has effectively killed their dreams for mass transit.

What’s going on here? There is definitely conflict. But it’s not about the General Assembly reflexively opposing deep-blue cities.

It appears to be a fundamental difference in philosophy. Or perhaps it’s just a problem of how Charlotte talks about transit.

The state legislative building. Photo by Dave Crosby via Flickr (Creative Commons)

When Charlotte discusses transit, they don’t always talk about moving people.

More often, you hear about the economic development benefits it would bring.

With the Blue Line Extension between Uptown and University City, the city describes the project primarily as “providing development opportunities in the neighborhoods along this corridor.”

And with the Gold Line streetcar, former assistant city manager Ruffin Hall told the City Council that “The intent of the project is to spur growth along the corridor and broaden the tax base along that alignment.”

Charlotte NC Streetcar

It’s all about city building. This isn’t a bad thing. It’s just much different from how the state legislature is thinking about divvying up state transportation dollars.

Asphalt is still cheaper than rail.

When you look at the raw costs of moving people around, light rail appears to be a very expensive proposition.

Charlotte’s Blue Line Extension cost $1.1 billion for the 9-mile route. That’s a whopping $122 million per mile.

Meanwhile, a six-lane highway generally costs about $11 million per mile — and carries many thousands more people each day.

“I haven’t seen any data here that supports the concept of light-rail,” Person County Republican Rep. Larry Yarborough told a House committee, as reported by N.C. Civitas. “Everything I know about it is that it’s a feel-good proposition with very expensive cost per passenger-mile.”

This is what’s running through the heads of the General Assembly. To them, light rail is a toy that may or may not bring in benefits years down the line.

I-277 from Uptown

If Charlotte wants more transit money, it’s time to take a different tactic.

This isn’t to say that light rail and other transit doesn’t have value. As cities boom, there needs to be better ways of getting around.

But perhaps the city should think about major commuter routes first. Pitch mass transit as the best way to keep the engine of the economy flowing by moving people where they need to go.

And it wouldn’t hurt if the project ran outside of the city into a more Republican area.

Gastonia city manager Michael Peoples says the state is currently studying the possibility of commuter rail from Charlotte through Gaston County, according to the Gaston Gazette. That study should be done this year and comes at the behest of House Speaker Tim Moore, from Kings Mountain.

Think that has a better chance of getting state funding? You better believe it.

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Andrew Dunn
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