Will Charlotte learn from Austin’s successful transit vote?

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In 2019, Austin, Texas ranked No. 10 in the country with the worst congestion, according to a study. A year later, voters approved a massive $ 7 billion transit plan that would give people more options for getting around and removing cars from a highway like Interstate 35, pictured here.

Jay Janner / American statesman

Charlotte and Austin, Texas have a lot in common and a big difference.

The two Sun Belt towns have some of the hottest housing markets in the Southeast. People flock there for jobs and a better quality of life. But with growth comes congestion.

Before the pandemic, Austin faced one of its highest levels of traffic congestion, said Chandra Bhat, professor of transportation engineering at the University of Texas at Austin.

In 2019, Austin ranked No. 10 in the United States for most congested traffic, according to a global index study from navigation provider company TomTom. Charlotte placed No. 34.

A year later, Austin took an important step to address the impact of growth on its traffic – voters approved a massive $ 7.1 billion transit plan. The city’s share of the plan will be funded by a roughly 4% property tax hike, which is expected to generate $ 147 million this year, Austin officials said.

In Charlotte, local leaders are considering a sales tax referendum to meet transportation needs of $ 13.5 billion. But it’s not clear if they can put it on the ballot or if voters would approve it.

City officials could emulate some of the moves Texas has taken to persuade voters to raise property taxes.

Here’s a look at Austin’s plan and why some supporters say it worked.

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Austin voters approved a $ 7 billion transit plan in November 2020 that aims to reduce congestion. The plan included an increase in property taxes to fund the city’s share. Ricardo Brazziell / American statesman Ricardo B. Brazziell / American statesman

Lots of review

In November 2020, about 58% of voters in Austin supported the referendum. Known as Project Connect, the plan would create the city’s first mass transit system.

It requires 27 miles of light rail that would connect the airport and other popular destinations. It also includes a tunnel that would separate two light rail lines from automobile traffic in downtown Austin, rapid bus routes and other extended bus lines, among other projects. The entire project is expected to take 13 years, Austin officials said.

A second proposal in Austin also gained approval to invest in new bike lanes, sidewalks, city paths and improved intersections. Voters approved $ 460 million in general bond bonds to pay them off.

Prior to those votes, Charlotte officials had heard from Austin transportation executives about how they helped move transportation initiatives forward.

Part of the success came from updating the overall city plan and creating a clear vision for future growth, Annick Beaudet of the Austin Department of Transportation told the Charlotte MOVES task force in July. last. The city also engaged with the community and those most in need of mobility to build trust, she said.

So when the property tax vote passed, Charlotte’s executives were certainly on the alert as they needed to get approval for a 1 cent sales tax hike to help fund a massive options expansion. transport and transit.

Over the past two decades, referendums on public transportation measures across the United States have won more than 70% of the time, according to the Centers for Transportation Excellence, a clearinghouse based in Buffalo, NY. , which promotes public transport.

The Connect project has been the subject of public scrutiny for years and encompassed a range of options, from bus extensions to light rail, which people believe would actually reduce traffic, the mayor said. from Austin, Steve Adler, to FastCompany magazine.

Austin’s plan will result in approximately 250,000 daily car trips off city streets, the mayor told the magazine.

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Austin is one of the few cities to have successfully passed a transportation referendum in recent years. A $ 7 billion plan would expand light rail and the bus system, among other projects. Jay Janner / American statesman Jay Janner / American statesman

Texas tunnel issues

Austin is growing at such a rate that it does not have the financial means to keep building new roads and bridges, Professor Bhat said.

While the congestion is not completely resolved, there are advantages to offering more options and investing in a multimodal system, he said.

Bhat did share his concerns about the tunnel, however, pointing out the uncertainties that can arise when digging and not knowing what you are going to hit. He called Boston’s infamous “Big Dig” a warning, a highway project that dragged on for years and encountered a number of problems along the way.

Austin officials aim to get half of the people to use cars and the rest to use transit or transit by 2039. And they hope that drawing up the $ 7 billion plan dollars will get them there.

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Gordon Rago covers the growth and development of The Charlotte Observer. Previously, he was a reporter for the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Virginia, and began his career as a reporter in 2013 at the Shoshone News-Press in Idaho.

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