Charlotte’s mobility plan goes missing as city manager misses deadlines for providing cost estimates

Updated: Apr. 29, 2021 at 6:08 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - A plan to improve Charlotte-area transportation has dropped off the map.

A WBTV Investigation shows City Manager Marcus Jones has missed his own deadlines for providing new information about Charlotte’s Transformational Mobility Network.

At the start of 2021, few City of Charlotte priorities had more attention than the Transformational Mobility Network.

But lately the project has gone missing from council agendas and updates promised regarding the estimated cost of the project and legislation to get a proposed one cent sales tax approved have been not come to fruition.

Right before the plan went MIA, Huntersville Mayor John Aneralla and others came out against a proposed one cent sales tax to fund the project. A likely delay for elections this November also means it’s almost certain the mobility network tax won’t be in front of voters this year.

But money, costs and taxes have always been the hot button issue. The project was estimated at $8 to 12 billion dollars with the county-wide sales tax covering half of those costs.

WBTV spoke with Charlotte Moves Task Force members Eric Zaverl from Sustainable Charlotte and Ken May about what the city could have done differently in hindsight.

“Looking back and planning wise, if we knew that this was only going to be a county-wide tax, that was the only opportunity, some way of maybe suggesting that we had more voices for that in the room,” Zaverl said.

“I thought from the very beginning that the task force, which was Charlotte specific, we should have engaged early on members of the of the County,” May said.

“I think that was a strategic error by not engaging them early.”

As city leaders started discussing new priorities for the project, such as the Red Line, to make more people happy with the plan, talk of a new price tag also emerged in February from City Manager Marcus Jones.

“We do have some different numbers (than the task force) and I would like to get those cleaned up a bit before we start producing a new set of numbers,” Jones said during city council’s February 8th meeting.

Immediately WBTV filed a record requests for emails from city staffers that would likely show some of those new numbers. That request still hasn’t been fulfilled.

On March 1st Jones gave a new timeline for providing those answers.

“We would come back the 22nd of this month with more information for you regarding the legislation and the refining the financial assumptions,” Jones told councilmembers during a council meeting.

That day came and went and still no public update on the projected cost of the mobility plan.

In response to WBTV’s questions about the cost of the plan and why that information hadn’t been shared yet, a city spokesperson emailed WBTV a statement.

“The City is working with our partners and we have engaged with stakeholders and brought on consultants and we are continuing that work to develop the necessary strategies to bring this vision to life.”

The city also pointed to comments Jones made during an April meeting but he didn’t provide any new answers about the cost of the plan then either.

“We are continuing to do the analysis, we are continuing to make sure the legislation is correct as well as the financing and the sequencing of the lines,” Jones said during the April 7th council meeting.

New local partnerships, and initiatives at the federal government level, are evidence that the city is working on a new strategy to sell the plan to regional partners.

On April 22nd the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance announced North Carolina State University and their Transportation Research and Education team were selected to conduct an economic impact study of the proposed plan.

“The study will look not only analyze the economic influence these projects could have within Mecklenburg County, but for all 15 counties within our bi-state region,” said CLT Alliance Chief Advocacy and Strategy Officer Kelly O’Brien in a statement. Depending on the results of the study, the report could be a major selling point to people currently in opposition of the plan.

The Biden administration is also pushing a massive infrastructure bill that could provide substantial funding for major projects within the mobility plan, such as the LYNX Silver Line.

During the April 7th meeting, Jones told councilmembers that there’s reasons to believe the federal match for funding such projects could me more than one third of the price tag.

That substantial increase could offset state funding for local transportation projects, which is already stretched thin. However, without an updated price tag and more guarantees about the infrastructure bill, it’s impossible to tell for certain.

The CRBA announced that the economic impact study report is expected to be complete in late Summer 2021. A city spokesperson said Jones is anticipating an update for councilmembers on the mobility plan around the same time.

Zaverl and others have also mentioned that having a local transportation authority that could act as its own taxing and funding district, similar to what’s found in other major cities and counties across America, could be a better method for financing the plan.

“Do we need a transportation authority that kind of pulls together the whole county since that’s the only way we could fund these things?” Zaverltold WBTV.

But the question of cost remains elusive and the $8 to $12 billion price tag no longer seems like an accurate reflection of what the project might be valued at today.

“You know we never got to where that came from,” May said.

“We always kept asking about the how the funding, right?” Zaverl said.

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