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Needed: A Transit Tax 'Surge' 

Ultimate goal: A fare-free transit system

The arguments go around and around in the transit tax debate, but neither side is offering voters a compelling vision of its eventual goals. Some of the strongest pro-transit advocates have a vision of a first-rate, mass transit/in-city development plan, but those views have been conspicuously muted in favor of simplistic sloganeering such as "Keep Mecklenburg Moving."

The pro-repeal group's vision is even fuzzier. Aside from their "we're crowded and we want more roads" mantra, the only underlying philosophy I've detected in the repealers' arguments is that they are against taxes and government planning -- libertarian talking points that no doubt made more sense in the 18th century.

Arguments for both sides have been muddled (e.g., WBT's attack dogs), condescending (the Observer's Mary Schulken), or just plain bizarre (County Commissioner Dan Bishop's claim that light rail is an attempt to force people to give up their homes and yards). Lots of fireworks, but little light.

The pro-repeal side of the debate includes a coalition of the anti-taxers and libertarians, plus suburbanites who are fed up with traffic congestion and want more money spent on roads, and those who think light rail is merely, as one WBT whiz put it, "those stupid trains." Other repealers seem to have never heard of, much less been to, cities where light rail and streetcars are routine, efficient modes of transportation; those are the folks who think the idea of riding anywhere in the city on a train is "weird."

On the other side of the issue are those who think paying for more roads will simply create more congestion and strip-mall blight. A number of transit tax supporters envision Charlotte joining the ranks of progressive cities like, say, Portland, Ore., and love the potential for "urban villages" sprouting along the rail lines. Other supporters' thinking on the issue doesn't seem to go far beyond the belief that light rail is "cool."

The repealers have a few things going for them, namely the right-wing radio echo chamber, and the region's natural Scots-Irish contrarianism, which blends effortlessly with our area's infectious case of Resentful White Male Syndrome (which leads to the kind of conversations I've overheard in which light rail is derided as not being suitably macho). The repeal effort is also receiving support from Raleigh's John Locke Foundation, a right-wing think tank that opposes light rail and the "theory" of global warming, but gets mad when anyone points out that they get much of their funding from oil companies which would profit if the foundation's ideas were put in place.

The pro-transit contingent has much more money to spend on advertising, so it's too bad that their organized effort has, so far, evinced all the excitement of a United Way campaign. What's worse is that the campaign's public faces are the same old standard Chamber-approved roster of dull power brokers and Uptown suits whom the general public trust about as much as divorcees trust men's promises. With pro-transit advocacy stooping to the inane level of the current Vinroot-and-Gantt "parking garage" commercial, you have to wonder whether transit supporters' money advantage will even matter.

Neither campaign exactly has a lock on the truth, either. The pro-repealers' slogan, "No More Trains," implies that the transit tax goes solely to pay for light rail, as many people still believe, when in fact, 65 percent of the money goes toward funding bus service. In turn, some pro-transit folks claim that a repeal of the tax will impose draconian reductions in bus service, including brutal cuts in services for the handicapped, but the truth is that no one knows whether a repeal would bring fewer services, higher property taxes, a re-vote on the issue next year, or some combination of all of the above.

What I find discouraging in this latest effort to drag Charlotte into the present century is that those with a forward-looking vision for the city have to fight never-ending rear-guard battles against those citizens who want to continue the same policies that brought us congestion and sprawl to begin with. (One irony here is that those policies of unrestrained growth were originally installed by some of the people now backing the transit tax, namely the Chamber and their city government hand-puppets, but that's an issue best left for another time.)

As Observer editorial page honcho Ed Williams correctly pointed out recently, the transit tax debate is, at its deepest level, a fight between competing philosophies of government. Pro-transit folks generally believe governments should use their powers "to try to build an urban region that works well." Repealers, on the other hand, think government planning is an affront to property rights -- a view that, when empowered, leads to butt-ugly, polluted hellholes like Houston, Texas. What the repealers refuse to recognize is that the system we have now, the "lifestyle" they favor -- a gazillion roads and sprawling development -- is already supported and subsidized by government policies. It's not a matter of whether we'll have government planning; it's a matter of what kind.

I am against repealing the half-cent transit sales tax. Not because I think light rail is God's gift to Charlotte -- and certainly not because I think it would quickly reduce congestion, as some pro-transit ads falsely claim -- but because light rail is one component of an expanded mass transit system the city has needed for years. We simply cannot afford to continue subsidizing private car use at the expense of the environment and our lungs.

Ed Williams quoted the Locke Foundation as saying that mass transit is "... a wasteful attempt to entice or coerce commuters out of their personal vehicles and into buses or trains." Well, I not only don't see anything wrong with enticing people to use mass transit, but I also think we should be doing more of it.

A number of cities in the United States and other nations are having success with fare-free public transit as a way to really "entice" commuters to leave their cars at home, and I urge city leaders and planners to look into the possibility of doing the same here. As Dave Olsen, a public transit consultant in Vancouver, Canada, wrote recently, "Why do we have any barriers to using buses and urban trains?" He points out that a number of cities, including Clemson and Chapel Hill, offer fare-free rides for all standard routes and that, needless to say, ridership has increased dramatically. Other places offering standard fare-free transit include cities in New York, Colorado, California, Utah, Washington state, and several European countries. Olsen identifies cities that tried fare-free transit the wrong way -- too much, too soon, and too little planning -- and points out the lessons learned from those mistakes -- namely, conduct a robust improvement and expansion of the transit system, and any cycling infrastructure, well before removing fareboxes.

How much would a fare-free system cost? City honchos would have to figure out Charlotte's financial requirements, but, as an example, Whidbey Island, Wash. runs a fare-free system with 56 buses and 101 vans, with ridership topping a million a year, and with all the funding coming from a 0.6 percent sales tax.

If the transit tax repeal is defeated resoundingly in November, the result would be a validation of city planning as a way to tackle traffic strategies. In my "perfect world," the city could build on such a victory and adopt a more far-reaching, fare-free transit plan. After all, if we really want people to use mass transit, what better way than to make it free?

To read Dave Olsen's article, go to http://thetyee.ca/Views/2007/07/05/NoFares1/.

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