Thursday, March 9, 2017

Will North Mecklenburg be fooled again by the CATS rail transit pushers?

Everyone has heard the saying “Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.”  But what is the saying when someone tries to fool you three times?  Something along the lines of “Do you think I’m stupid?!?!” comes to mind.

Yet, that’s exactly what the transit planners at CATS appear to be thinking when it comes to their rail transit plans.

CATS recently launched a new attempt to breathe life into its stalled long range rail transit plan with a proposal to simultaneously build three light rail corridors out Independence Blvd, to Charlotte Douglas, and yes, to North Mecklenburg.

The catch?  No money is left in the original half cent transit tax to pay for any more lines, and using “back of a napkin” math, this new plan comes in at a whopping $6 billion, or roughly $2 billion per line.

If there is anything good about this idea, it is that the long planned Commuter Rail idea for North Mecklenburg (aka The Red Lline) which would have used Norfolk Southern’s tracks appears to be officially on the back burner and likely off the stove all together. (Commuter Rail and light rail while both being trains use different technology and track gauges.)

Transit planners and elected officials who have supported the Red Line never understood something very fundamental about dealing with the railroad.  Railroads are probably the only companies that aren’t afraid of the government.  A longtime friend told me that years ago when he was the head engineer on a major construction project in Washington, DC impacted by a railroad.  It is nearly impossible to use eminent domain against railroads due to rights granted when the railroads were originally built.  Also, just about any change to a railroad can be construed as impacting interstate commerce.  That makes forcing them to do something they don’t want to do nearly impossible.  The Red Line never really had a chance because of this.

However, just because Commuter Rail to North Mecklenburg may be dead that doesn’t mean Light Rail is the next logical idea.  Here are a few reasons why.

The most obvious reason is the cost.  For CATS to raise just its portion of a $6 billion effort it will require significantly increasing the existing ½ cent transit tax, gutting the future property tax base through some form of massive tax increment financing or special assessment districts, or some combination of all three.

Other reasons to be skeptical of this plan can be seen in a series of articles run in The Charlotte Observer since the plan’s February 17th announcement.  These articles weren’t written as a series, but the sum total of their message really throws cold water on the idea of spending $6 billion on more trains.

On the 18th, there was an opinion piece by the leader of Sustain Charlotte advocating making parking in Charlotte more difficult by eliminating minimum parking standards for development. Scarce parking equals mass transit riders goes the thinking.  On the 22nd, there was an article about long term falling mass transit ridership.  Compared to 2012 when ridership and average annual gas prices hit all time peaks, CATS 2017 ridership is down 13% year to date when compared to that peak. Then on the 24th, there was an article outlining the looming competition from self-driving cars.  Again in 2012, when Randall O’Toole of the CATO Institute came to North Meck to caution against the Red Line he mentioned self-driving cars and local officials snickered.  Now, a few short years later these vehicles are seen as a real possibility and real competition.

After being mislead about the real prospects for the Red Line in the transit tax and tax repeal votes of 1998 and 2007, North Mecklenburg voters should take a clear message from these data points.

In light of the costs and the all but certain tax increases, considering the decreasing ridership of local mass transit options and increasing competition from more convenient technology driven choices, is investing $6 billion in more rail transit the right thing to do?  The answer to that should be obvious.

Bonus Observation: Self driving buses are on the way.  If a few years they could likely form a core for a new, more flexible, and les expensive form of mass transit.

Self-driving bus with no back-up driver nears California street

Self driving bus that talks and listens to passengers coming to US cities within months

This post first appeared in this week’s Herald Weekly at

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