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Dodging the Train 

Ron Tober gets a break

In the grand scheme of the universe, it was statistically inevitable. Eventually, something had to go Ron Tober's way. The Charlotte Area Transit CEO has presided over debacle after debacle in the construction of a mass transit plan now on track to cost more than 10 times what the city's consultants -- who also did estimating work on Boston's Big Dig -- originally estimated it would.

Then last week, the news broke. The light rail transit foes who have hounded Tober for years managed to collect the 49,000 signatures they need to put a repeal of the half-cent mass transit tax on the ballot in November.

The mass transit repeal is probably the single biggest political miscalculation I've seen anyone make since I started covering local politics almost a decade ago. The shiny-shoes crowd and their damned consultants couldn't have come up with a surer way to keep our mass transit plan alive if they tried.

The attempt to repeal the tax isn't the problem. It's the timing. There is no way on God's green earth that this community is going to vote down the transit tax because former Mecklenburg County Commissioner Jim Puckett, whose recent accomplishments include a loss in the at-large county commission race, says it would be a good idea. The community generally ignored Don Reid when he was on the city council -- which is a shame since most of his predictions have been right -- and I doubt they'll listen now.

At best, by the time voters hit the polls in November, the South End light rail train will have been running for a week or two on just part of the track, if it's up and running at all. So transit foes are essentially asking the public to imagine complex problems that don't exist yet and react to them.

If the train starts running in October, here's how the headlines will read that first week: "Thousands of Riders Show Up to For Rail's Opening Day." Because people think we're building Washington's Metro or New York's subway, they'll initially be curious to hop aboard. Even if the trains don't run before the November vote, it's asinine to think a majority of voters would slash funding for a train taxpayers paid a half billion dollars for without giving it a chance to run.

Either way, here's the headline that will run Nov. 7, the day after the election: "Voters Reaffirm Mandate for Light Rail." That "mandate" will give local leaders the cover they need to initiate billions more worth of mass transit spending before the public discovers the truth buried in a report by city consultant Charles Lesser & Co. years ago: It will take hundreds of millions of dollars, and likely more, in government subsidization of development along the South End line to achieve the ridership numbers transit consultants forecasted. Charles Lesser & Co. refused to even speculate on a final price tag, or whether the city's ridership forecasts, which CATS has since downgraded, were even achievable. (Naturally the city buried that report, so the public doesn't know much about it.)

That's why this transit tax repeal probably has Tober sleeping a lot better at night. He could really use a light rail/mass transit mandate from an uninformed public right now. Tober knows the tough headlines he'll have to deal with next year, after the South End line opens for business. Within six months of the train's launch this fall, the public will have figured out what Charles Lesser & Co. knew years ago -- that the light rail line is little more than a glorified Uptown parking shuttle. By then people will have begun to notice that rail cars seem to be running half-empty, like many of the buses in this city, and the first headlines will have begun to appear about the massive subsidization costs that no one saw coming.

Those in charge will feign bafflement over why the subsidies necessary to run the line are six, eight, 10 times what anyone predicted. By next spring, the full reality of the costs of the North rail line will begin to sink in. As I first predicted almost two years ago, the federal government, which paid half the cost of the South End line, won't be funding the North line because it is forecasted to have so few riders -- a mere 4,600 a day -- that it doesn't meet federal funding criteria.

Because that has received so little coverage elsewhere, the public is still largely unaware that for over a year, the Metropolitan Transit Commission has planned to use upwards of $100 million -- initially -- in property tax money from businesses and future growth along the northern line to fund it. That's property tax money that could go for roads, schools and police. Again, we'd be spending this property tax money so we could move 4,600 riders a day on the north rail line while over 100,000 drivers a day are forecasted to clog I-77 in a decade, 25,000 more drivers on I-77 than today.

I'm fairly confident that by November 2008, voters will be calling for Tober's head on a spike. That would be a great time to ask the public what they think about repealing the tax, because by then, they'll have enough information to form an actual opinion.

But by then, it will be too late.

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