Friday, October 31, 2014

Like Frankenstein…It’s Alive!!!

With Halloween upon us this week, we bring you the latest transportation spending monster being planned for Mecklenburg County.  This one involves new ways to fund a project that just won’t die – the Red Line commuter rail from Charlotte to Mooresville as part of the regional 2030 Transit Plan.

The Red Line received an apparently fatal blow last June when Norfolk Southern indicated track sharing with commuter rail did not fit the long-term plans for the company’s O line corridor which would be used for the project.  However, that has not phased the mad scientists down at the Metropolitan Transit Commission (MTC) who have been hard at work coming up with new and creative ways to finance floundering rail transit efforts - including the Red Line.

Earlier this month, the road show to start gathering support in North Mecklenburg for that creative financing kicked off in Davidson.  The MTC is requesting the towns support the following as part of its 2015-2016 Legislative Agenda for the next General Assembly.  The MTC wants:

  1. Authorization to use Public Private Partnerships as a financing mechanism for transit.
  2. Authorization to access certain low interest Federal loan programs usable for transit infrastructure.
  3. Removal of the sunset provision on Special Assessment District legislation so they can be used for long-term transit projects.

Immediately after the September MTC meeting, canned language for supporting resolutions was distributed to all of the participating towns.  The request was to have resolutions passed by the Commission's member boards by the MTC's November 19th meeting.

Of the North Mecklenburg towns, only Davidson has seen the presentation from LNTC Chairman Bill Thunberg at this point.  He is doing the road show on the MTC’s behalf.  Davidson will likely vote on any supporting resolution at its November meeting.  If Huntersville and Cornelius vote on such a resolution by the originally requested date, they would likely need to do so at the same meeting where the information is presented to their Boards.  That puts Board members in a real bind if they are trying to make an informed decision.

Giving limited time to review information is a standard tactic when trying to ram something through.  Pushing this through while most people are focused on something else - like our current elections - is also a good way to slide this by the voters.

Why would the MTC want to do this?  A couple of reasons come to mind...

Authorization of P3s for transit financing sets up the same sort of monstrous projects we are seeing with the I77 HOT Lanes.  During the entire HOT debate, elected officials have been using the fact that the NCGA "authorized" the use of P3s years ago to abdicate any responsibility for it.

The earliest plans for tolls on I77 were tiny compared to what the project has morphed into now. Authorizing P3s for transit financing without knowing how a project would take shape in the future will result in the same thing for a project like the Red Line.

The second reason to rush this through is that paying off these projects will require going outside the half cent transit tax originally approved by voters.  If this agenda goes forward, the local economy will be stuck paying for a much larger percentage of these projects than voters originally supported.  Before gutting the property tax base with tools like Tax Increment Financing and Special Assessment Districts to pay off any massive new loans from the Federal government or the P3 private partners, the MTC should have to go back to those same voters for additional approval.  You can be sure that is not something transit supporters want to do. 

At the October 14th meeting in Davidson, Mayor Woods described supporting the MTC agenda as a “benign and routine request”.  It is anything but that, and we’ve previously seen this same kind of horror movie with this same cast.

Former Mooresville Mayor Thunberg and Davidson Mayor Woods were instrumental in pushing for the creation the money-hemorrhaging Mi-Connection cable company back in 2007.  It too was presented to the public as something that just had to be done.  Like Dr. Frankenstein himself, as Mooresville’s Mayor, Thunberg cast the tie-breaking vote that actually brought Mi-Connection to life.  It was a disastrous decision for both towns.

Now, as the LNTC Executive Director and the MTC Vice-Chairman, Thunberg and Woods are showing the same zeal in pushing for the Red Line and transit.  With that in mind, elected officials on the various town boards would be very smart to decline supporting the MTC legislative agenda.  At the very least they should not support it without a commitment to go back to the voters first on any new financing plans.

Will enough LKN commissioners oppose something destined to be more “trick” than “treat” for area residents?  We will all know soon enough.

This post originally appeared in the Herald Weekly

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