Tuesday, January 22, 2013

LNTC Searches for "Relevance", Provides Examples of Revolving Door Politics, Engages in Revisionist History

On Thursday, January 17th, the Lake Norman Transportation Commission (LNTC) met in Mooresville to discuss the group's future plans, how to remain relevant, and hear presentations on the impacts of growth in the LKN Area.  (See below for video of the meeting, courtesy of Jay Privette.)

Attendees including elected officials, staff, and other interested parties talked through 4 major areas: Roads, Transit, Land Use, and Bike/Pedestrian.  Here are the top vote-getters in each category from the informal straw poll  conducted at the end of the event.

  • RoadsIncrease capacity on I-77 from Exit 19 to Exit 36 followed by a close second Widen I-77 with GP Lanes.  Notice, toll lanes as defined in the current I77 plan did not even make the list.
  • Transit - Decide on the Red Line received by far the most votes.  There seems to be a serious lowering of expectations with this project.  The group is now trying to just get to a point on whether the project should go forward rather than pushing it forward on an expedited schedule.
  • Land Use - Work with private sector to develop employment center space blew away all other land use items.
  • Bike and Pedestrian - Complete thread trail received the most votes. When this trail network is complete it would connect 15 counties through an extensive network of greenways.

Nobody would seriously challenge the notions that the LKN area has some serious congestion issues during rush hour and the area's future growth poses significant challenges.  What can be challenged though is how our leaders go about addressing it.  Who those leaders are.  And how information is presented to the public.  Regarding those questions, the LNTC Summit provided an interesting view into how transportation projects really get done.

They operate on the revolving door between government and the private sector with a little revisionist history thrown in.

The summit kicked off with the LNTC's new director, Bill Thunberg, setting out the afternoon's agenda.  Who is Bill Thunberg you may ask?  Mr Thunberg is the former Mayor of Mooresville who lost a re-election bid to political newcomer and eventually scandal ridden, Chris Montgomery, in 2009.

Much of  the reason for that loss has to do with Mr Thunberg's tie breaking vote as Mayor in 2007 to create the municipally owned Mi-Connection cable company along with the Town of Davidson.  His was the vote that broke a 3-3 tie in Mooresville's decision to create the company from the remnants of the old Adelphia Communications.  That decision has become a weight around the necks of both towns.  Comments on this post from The Gatton Report blog also provide a window into why Mayor Thunberg became Former Mayor Thunberg.  There was apparently a sizable "anybody but Thunberg" group of voters, and he ended up losing by a razor thin margin of only 16 votes.

Out of office and looking for a job, Mr Thunberg somehow managed to land the position at the LNTC - an $80,000/yr position.  It's good to have friends in the right places when the revolving door turns.

Mr Thunberg was not a telecommunications expert when he tossed Mooresville into the deep end of the pool with his Mi-Connection vote, and he is not a transportation expert even though he is Lake Norman's chief representative for over $1 billion in proposed transportation projects.

The question  taxpayers should be asking is why is someone best defined as merely a self described expert running our local transportation body here in the Lake Norman area?  Do qualifications count, or only connections?

Other examples of the revolving door on display at the meeting were Carroll Gray, a former Charlotte Chamber President, and himself a former LNTC Director as well as Barry Moose - formerly of NCDOT and now with SEPI Engineering.  Mr Gray and Mr Moose have long been fixtures at area transportation meetings and both were prominent speakers during the afternoon's discussions.  Now that they have moved back to the private sector, one can only guess at their continued interest in keeping a hand in local transportation decisions.

During Mr Gray's update on the Red Line commuter rail project another theme in area transportation discussions reared its head.  That's the theme of revisionist history when it comes to how we have gotten to where we are with our mass transit decisions.

In giving a history of the Red Line, Mr Gray mentioned the transit tax of 1998 and the tax repeal effort in 2007.  Whenever the repeal effort is mentioned, local rail transit supporters always remind people that voters have approved this "twice".  They say it as if that alone justifies any amount of spending on trains from any sources of tax revenue.  As they present it, those two votes put questioning trains out of the question.  Here's what they don't tell you.

  • Voter turnout in the 2007 repeal vote was much lower than in 1998 due to being an off year election - 24% vs 40%.  Yes, voters kept the tax, but a much smaller percentage of overall registered voters actually voted to keep it than in 1998.  When population growth in the decade between 1998 and 2007 is considered, the numbers are even worse.  The tax was kept based on approval of 17% of all registered voters.  Yet, train supporters somehow translate that into an overwhelming victory.
  • During the repeal effort, voters were deliberately deprived of a viable option to keep the tax but to make it for buses only.  The Mecklenburg County Commission voted 4-4 to not promote that as a viable option even though the County Attorney said it would be legal. (See page 12 at the link.)  See these links from the old RhinoTimes for more detail - Pro Taxers Lampoon Plans to Save Buses and Pro Taxers Want Flawed Transit Plan Kept on Track
  • The pro-tax side in that debate was awash in money compared to those supporting repeal.  See this article from the Charlotte Business journal on how the Charlotte Chamber (Mr Gray's former employer) took the lead on raising that money. 

What has happened in the wake of the tax repeal's failure?  Bus fares have gone up repeatedly - affecting those who need mass transit most.  The Streetcar has stalled and may never reach the East and West side communities who supported the tax based on that promise.  The communities of North Mecklenburg are being asked to commit their property tax base to the Red Line.

Red Line supporters never emphasize in public that the current Red Line financing plan includes TIF and SAD financing components which do not require a vote of the general public.  This is money well above what was approved by the voters in those two previous referendums.  Even more disturbing, one of the "positives" of TIFs in the Red Line documentation is the fact that it does not have to go before the voters.  See As We See Fit for why there will not be another referendum on the Red Line even though it will commit local tax dollars well beyond the 1/2 cent transit tax.

Why is this history important?  Why bring it up now?

If you live in North Mecklenburg you already know the Red Line is going to cost you more.   You know the history of the current transit plan has not delivered what was promised when you voted for it - twice.  Now, if you listen closely to the discussions going on about the I77 HOT Lanes and the plan to toll commuters, you will hear many similarities to the tactics used in the Transit Tax Repeal and Red Line discussions.

"There is no other option than the one we've presented."

"Take it or leave it."

"It's this way or no way."

Those lines are beginning to sound eerily familiar.

Video courtesy of Jay Privette

LNTC Summit 1-17 Early Afternoon Part 1
8:45 - Jeff Tarte (NC SEN 41) speaks on his involvement in creating LNTC and what it needs to do to remain relevant.
20:00 - Jeff Michael of UNCC Urban Institute presents on regional growth.

LNTC Summit 1-17 Early Afternoon Part 2
2:10 - Barry Moose (former NCDOT) now consultant with SEPI

LNTC Summit 1-17 Late Session
0:00 - Bill Thunberg gives I77 HOT Lanes update.
5:15 - Carroll Gray gives Red Line update. 

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