On Monday, former Charlotte, North Carolina Mayor Pat McCrory was back in Tampa, his third time in Hillsborough County in the past year as he advises supporters of the one-cent sales tax referendum for transit how to get the item passed this November.
McCrory was unsuccessful in his bid to become governor of North Carolina in 2008, but there are strong indications that he'll try it again in 2012 as the Republican nominee. Funny, personable and seemingly flexible when it comes to running things, CL sat down at the headquarters of the Tampa Bay Partnership offices off of Westshore Boulevard to ask McCrory about Charlotte's winning strategy, how it's doing now, and what folks who support the measure need to be doing right now, less than five months before voters will decide on the measure. Here are excerpts from out interview:
CL: Hillsborough County Commissioner Al Higgenbotham has talked about cost overruns in Charlotte, estimated to be 100%. True or false?
PM: Not quite 100% but we had some cost overruns during the major steel increase in prices that China..just a completely different environment right in the middle of our construction is right when steel prices went up 60-80% and there's no doubt that had a huge impact on our budget, and made us delay our budget, some of which cost us valuable time and money. But in the long run, it's been a very good investment.
CL: What do you say about critics who say "transportation projects never pay for themselves?"
PM: Every transportation system is subsidized, including the roads. Including roads going through the city, including roads going through your neighborhood. Every transportation system is subsidized, whether it be through a property tax, sales tax, gas tax, or a combination of many. So, that is not unique to mass transportation. It's true with all forms of transportation. But it's one of those community needs in which everybody helps pay for the transportation because frankly everyone benefits whether they ride it or not.
Yeah, most people think roads are free. Because they don't see the bills. But frankly, there are both capital cost bills that are being paid by your taxes, both state and local and there are ongoing operating bills that you're paying to fill the potholes, to pay the police, that pay the cleanup, so all forms of transportation do cost money and they don't pay for themselves. But they do help your economy and get people to and from work, and that's what it's all about right now is jobs.
MP: Let me ask you about connections to an airport. That's not part of the light rail proposal. We've heard you say I believe that a rail system shouldn't go directly to an airport, is that correct?
PM: Every city's different. I mean every city's development goes in different directions. In our city, we do not have enough density at this point between our downtown and our airport, and therefore it's in 5th place regarding the routes that we select. I hope it will go to the airport at sometime in the next 50 years. But at this point in time we picked high priority lines even though an airport was my first choice as mayor, but I listened to the experts had to say and the experts told me that in Charlotte that would not be the best line to implement. But every city is different. ..
MP: So you wouldn't say whether it's good or not for Tampa?
PM: No, I ..frankly, I would love for our line to go to the airport, but at this point in time we have lines which would work better in other areas.
CL: How many lines do you have?
PM: Right now we have one line that we implemented almost two years ago, and we have another planned to extend that line in another 12 miles to our university...but we have plans literally, to go in five different directions from the center city. That's the long term plan. You have to remember - you have to present a long term plan and people will go 'wait a minute, why isn't mine being done in the next 10 years?' Well, ten years in a life of a city is nothing. It's a long time in my life but in the life of a city, it's nothing. And whether you're building a road or building a light rail line, it takes a long time to implement and prioritize. And that's exactly what you're doing in Tampa?
CL : The Charlotte Observer reported that the transit system might have to consider stopping the initial construction of the Blue Line short of University City because of lagging sales tax revenues. In that case, the Observer said the transit system might have to finish the line phases to University City as it gets more money?
PM: Due to the recession the sales tax revenue is not increasing as we currently budgeted. And as a result, you have to make changes. Just like we all have to make changes. And I think the people of Charlotte are going to have to make a change - do they wait until the revenue catches up to build an entire line, or should they build the line in phases? And I don't think that's a decision that's been made that.
MP: Any thoughts on how they should go?
PM: The good news is, we have an existing line that's already 11 miles. So it's really not going to be in phases, it just extends the existing line by another 4, 10 or 30 miles, so we've got that advantage.
MP: The financial breakdown? Can you tell me how much Charlotte spent, vs. the feds?
PM: Our local tax is paying for about a little over 25% of the light rail line and about 80% of the bus system. At least 80% of the bus system. The feds paid 48% of our light rail line, and the state chipped in another 25%.
In the first 5 years, we put about 60-70% of the money into the bus system. We had a horrible dilapidated bus system, poor customer service, dirty buses , poor ridership , so we put a lot of money into the bus system initially and our ridership has more than doubled and done extremely well, and not only that but now we have people from all walks of life riding the bus and becoming more dependent on the bus to get to and from work, especially we've seen with gas prices soar.
MP: So you have seen an increase in bus ridership?
PM: Oh, absolutely. Among all income levels, and especially to the suburbs, our express buses going to and from the downtown banks are filled, and we've had to expand them every year.
MP: In Tampa, without a culture riding buses, it seems that light rail is not "natural."
PM: We had the same dynamic in Charlotte. The only people taking mass transit (i.e., 'the buses') were the people who had to , and couldn't afford a car. So you had primarily low-income people, in our area, primarily African-American, and that has changed drastically, because what has happened is the middle-class especially the secretaries, the administrative assistants, the college students are also becoming very dependent and feel very comfortable on the bus. It's ironic that once we opened our light rail up, the psychology was the bus system is okay, too. Now granted, we've branded the bus system and light rail together, it has the exact same brand as the Charlotte area transit system. And we made sure they're safe , they're clean , they're reliable , they're dependable. And that they're integrated together...so the bus system has become much more acceptable to all people in Charlotte than ever before in a very short period of time to my surprise.