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Why Lake Norman should support a transportation sale tax

GUEST OPINION. Last week Lake Norman Chamber CEO Bill Russell explained why the chamber is opposed to the proposed sales tax increase for transit in Mecklenburg County. Olee Joel Olsen, a business owner and member of the chamber, disagrees. Here’s why.

Feb. 8. By Olee Joel Olsen. As the Lake Norman region grows, our traffic slows. Everyone knows we can not build enough roads to solve the problem. Atlanta tried this but found out too late that it just doesn’t work.

Before moving to Cornelius, I worked abroad for almost two decades spending up to 150 days a year on business trips to various cities across Europe and Asia. I quickly learned that cities which had invested in their transportation infrastructure not only had less traffic and faster commutes but these cities also attracted more companies, more jobs, and more business.

A good example of the impact investments in public transportation can make is the experience of flying into London before 1998. It could take two hours by taxi to travel from the Heathrow airport to London. After the Heathrow Express rail line was built at great expense, it took less than 20 minutes to get from the airport to downtown London.

While some may believe that light rail, expanded bus routes, bike lanes, and greenways are a waste of taxpayer money, cities at home and abroad that have invested in an efficient transportation infrastructure allow regions to grow while minimizing congestion, pollution, and lower productivity Companies are seeking to locate and expand in regions that offer their employees and their customers access to modern public transportation.

It will get worse without an investment

Although we are fortunate to have one of the busiest airports in the country, there is no public transportation that directly connects to the Lake Norman area, or even uptown Charlotte. The Blue Line has been a smashing success in attracting private investment up and down the corridor, but the bus network, greenways, bike lanes and pedestrian networks connecting our region and everywhere in between are still sorely lacking. Without an investment in our transportation infrastructure, it will only get worse.

What will it cost? Much less than the long term benefits it will bring our entire region. There is now a proposed county wide referendum in November to raise the funds for a mobility investment using a one cent sales tax.

This would allow Mecklenburg County to not only invest in the Silver Line which will create an “Airport Express Line,” but will also provide the funds to expand rapid bus service across the entire county, build and extend greenways, expand bicycle lanes, and improve pedestrian safety.

Bus improvements for LKN

The plan includes building a Rapid Bus transit line along I-77 with 4 new park & ride station in North Mecklenburg and continuing to seek solutions that would eventually connect North Mecklenburg to the light rail system.

We who live in the Lake Norman area have a chance to participate and maximize the benefit from this investment. An investment in our transportation infrastructure will help connect our businesses, parks, restaurants, and entertainment venues through more greenways, bikes lanes and sidewalks as well as expanded bus routes.

Choices reap benefits

A community that offers transportation choices is a safer place for children, a more convenient place for aging parents that want to stay in their homes, and a more prosperous place to attract customers and employees.

Why Now? There has never been a greater opportunity to receive matching federal funding to leverage the local funding that needs to be raised.

It’s time to work for the future instead of against it. We can do this, but only if we all work together and we take this opportunity now.

—Olee Joel Olsen

Olsen is a Cornelius business owner and member of the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce


24 Responses to “Why Lake Norman should support a transportation sale tax”

  1. I am a fervent supporter of mass transit and agree with the main points of your article. However, any additional tax needs to come with assurances that we will actually see the benefit. We already had a tax increase years ago supposedly going towards our North area light rail and never got what we paid for.

    Posted by Mike | February 8, 2021, 11:32 am
    • Mike, Thanks for your response. Any additional tax needs to come with assurances that North Mecklenburg will benefit from the transportation investment, but the North Mecklenburg business community needs to participate in the development of the plan. Just sitting this out with our arms crossed would be a shame.

      Posted by Joel | February 11, 2021, 10:57 pm
  2. Excellent idea! Thank you Mr Olsen for this:
    “It’s time to work for the future instead of against it. We can do this, but only if we all work together and we take this opportunity now.”

    Posted by Nancy Brand | February 8, 2021, 1:31 pm
  3. The operative words in your article are “continuing to seek solutions that would eventually connect North Mecklenburg.” As much as I can appreciate your position for this sales tax increase for transit, Lake Norman communities stand to reap the least benefit due to the rail system continuing to not be a viable option in our area of the county, which would absolutely be used if made available. Now even more so with remote working environments due to the pandemic, additional bussing options would be a waste. The post-pandemic economic landscape, including many Americans now working remote and for the foreseeable future, decreases the need for more Rapid Bus transit. We would love to take a train to go dining, sightseeing or to sporting events in the city or to get back and forth to the airport! Unless a separate rail line is slated to be built to LKN and included as part of the budget for this proposed sales tax increase, there will be minimum benefit for Lake Norman.

    Posted by Ami Jackson | February 8, 2021, 2:30 pm
    • Ami, Thanks for your thoughtful response. The next investment in transportation should include the Redline from the Gateway Station in uptown Charlotte to at least the Town od Davidson. The new Red Line must be fast, fully electric and reliable. In my humble opinion, commuter rail is like buying a Prius when everyone else is buying a Model 3 (Tesla). We now have options we didn’t have 10 years ago. Elon Musk’s Boring Company for one is working with both Las Vegas and Miami making faster, clear and more direct transit routes economically feasible. Modern Electric buses are coming to Mecklenburg county that are much cheaper to run than diesel busses. While many people living in North Mecklenburg may not take our existing rapid bus transit line, it is important to consider that North Mecklenburg needs a modern bus network to transport a workforce to the restaurants, grocery stores, gas stations and other businesses in our community. The pandemic has created a new appreciation for, and increased use of our greenways, our parks, and our sidewalks. I have never seen so many people walking with their families, riding bikes, and enjoying these public amenities that surround us. With our involvement, the transportation investment being considered will further expand and interconnect the greenways and sidewalks in North Mecklenburg. The pandemic will end soon, and people will need to go back work in the city, they will want to travel again, go to events in uptown again, and attend sports events again. I am not an advocate of a tax increase but I do believe that now is the time to make an investment in our infrastructure and transportation choices.

      Posted by Joel | February 11, 2021, 11:56 pm
  4. I came from queens NY where they installed a light rail to JFK airport 10 years ago. the only people that use it are the homeless people. Aside from that, Our government doesn’t have a good history of using the tax payers money for the reason it was collected. One example is where does the lottery money go?
    After the light rail is built will the penny get reduced? In New York the subway system is billions in dept. and I’m sure its the same in Europe. Don’t make This area be like all the other failed mass transit disasters. Bad Idea!

    Posted by Rick | February 8, 2021, 5:26 pm
    • Rick, thanks for reading the op-ed and taking the time to respond. In regards to JFK, there are a lot of improvements that can be made both the dated airport and its connection to the city. Rather than connecting JFK directly to the heart of NYC without having to change trains, the JFK Airtrain is a people mover between terminals, parking lots, then to a somewhat complicated web of older subways. The transportation investment that is being considered should provide a light rail line more similar to Metro yellow line in Washington DC that directly connect the Washington Reagan airport to most parts of the city without changing trains. The proposed Silver line should allow travelers to walk from airport terminal to the airport light rail station and be in Uptown Charlotte in 5 minutes, or to travel to Matthews in one direction and Belmont in the other. The new Red line should then take anyone going to North Mecklenburg to town centers in less time than driving a car. But remember this transportation investment also expands greenways, bike lanes, side walks and bus routes. In regards to “failed mass transit disasters”, the mass transit systems in Europe, Asia and many cities in the US do very well. It is bad planning, or lack of planning that leads to failure and disasters. Finally, clean modern public transportation will cost something to use. The suggestion that the only people who use it are homeless is just not accurate.

      Posted by Joel | February 12, 2021, 12:34 am
  5. Mass transit is not a good idea for this area. This is car-country in my opinion. I want to go when & where I want to go. Mass transit doesn’t do that for me.

    Posted by Johb | February 8, 2021, 8:33 pm
    • JOHB, thanks for taking the time to read the op-ed. I love my car like anyone else but DWD (Distracted While Driving) should be a concern for everyone. Whether someone is texting, reading email, or watching videos, look at any driver on the road today and you will most likely see them looking at their phone. An investment in transportation can help solve this. This was once car country where it was impossible to even get a taxi or find a bus. Riding a bike or walking on a busy street was dangerous before we started expanding sidewalks and greenways. Things are changing, especially after the pandemic. This doesn’t mean you can’t go when and where you want though. Cornelius has grown from 2,600 resident in 1990 to 31,000 today, Huntersville has grown from 3,000 in 1990 to 60,000 today. Doing nothing means more traffic, more pollution, more noise, and less productivity. While you may not use mass transit, think of the employees at our local businesses who do. Think of the younger generation who are not even getting their license. Think of the increasing danger of DWD. Now is the time to make an investment in the future of transportation.

      Posted by Joel | February 12, 2021, 12:52 am
  6. “While some may believe that light rail, expanded bus routes, bike lanes, and greenways are a waste of taxpayer money”

    Not a belief, proven fact they would a waste to the greater LKN area

    Side note The heathrow express was built privately by a for-profit company, hence its success

    The key to urban transportation planning is planning your transit system continuously as you build and grow your urban area/city. You cannot build a city and then decide you want to add infrastructure

    The blue line bleeds money, an overwhelming majority of passengers on the blue line are gate hoppers.

    Buses are still beholden to limitations of traffic on the roads, (several tractor trailer wreck have shut down all lanes on 77 including express lanes)

    Throw in what post pandemic life will do to public transit and you have throwing good money after bad

    Posted by anthony s | February 9, 2021, 12:23 am
    • Anthony, thanks for your thoughtful response. We are growing fast in North Mecklenburg and you bring up some good points regarding the importance of planning and private sector involvement. I really liked your statement, “You cannot build a city and then decide you want to add infrastructure”. We are growing 1.5% per year in North Mecklenburg which requires us to plan and invest in our infrastructure now. We have such an incredible opportunity to bring long term prosperity to our region if we participate in the planning and design of the transportation investment. Our transportation system needs to be clean, safe, reliable and fast. This means that the proposed transportation investment should include access measures that minimize free riding and gate hopping and help pay of long term operations and maintenance. Better operating income can also help lessen upfront financing costs. Too often transportation systems are designed to develop unpopulated areas with less chance of NIMBY protests rather than designing common sense direct routes and connections of existing population hubs. Here again is why I think North Mecklenburg needs to engage in the planning of what could be rather than object to it.

      Posted by Joel | February 12, 2021, 11:11 am
  7. While you are in fact correct about transit I don’t think the additional sales tax will bring mass transit to Lake Norman. What has North Meck received for all the years of additional sales tax? NOTHING! Well, maybe some busses.

    CATS want to extend light rail to Gaston County. How does that benefit us. I have lived in Cornelius for 16+ years, still waiting for a train.

    Mecklenburg County needs to partner with Gaston and Iredell county if they want a truly regional system. Collect sales tax from all those folks too and I’m on board. But please don’t ask me to pay for light rail to Belmont & Gastonia.

    Posted by Chris Conroy | February 9, 2021, 8:06 am
    • Chris, I too am frustrated that we don’t have a light rail line in North Mecklenburg. I know that Charlotte and the towns in North Mecklenburg spent years and had hundreds of meetings with Norfolk Southern to use the existing right of way for the Red line. Ultimately, Norfolk Southern refused. Common sense lost. But there are new opportunities now that did not exist 10 years ago. It seems that both Las Vegas and Miami have an option with the Boring Company to bore underground at a cost similar to building new highways but without the right of way issues. I can’t speak for Iredell County or Gaston County but we must consider the involvement of the private sector and their investment in the transportation infrastructure.

      Posted by Joel | February 12, 2021, 11:27 am
  8. I agree with most of this article.
    –Light Rail to the airport makes sense. It was not built due to cost/passenger. Perhaps the expected number of passengers has increased enough to support the project.
    –Rapid bus service around I-77 has been supported for many years – so Yes!

    However the devil is in the details: supporting light rail in North Meck is the first step to making North Meck the same high density as Charlotte. Witness the current proposal in Cornelius to allow 1.8 units/acre on property zoned for only 1/3 unit/acre.

    When I moved to North Meck, it was considered the wrong side of the tracks. Now people love the feel of the three northern towns. Light rail will, by necessity, bring high density. That high density will offset any improvement in infrastructure. It will not reduce congestion.

    There will be benefits to some. The designers, engineers, developers, and other big businesses will make a lot of money!

    If you value what you have here now, vote against any plan that includes light rail.

    Posted by Bruce Andersen | February 9, 2021, 8:22 am
    • Bruce, the devil is in the details. Whether we want it or not, our population in the northern towns will continue to increase. We will need more transportation choices that allow mobility without having to drive or park a car. In Cornelius, the new Cain Art Center will create more pedestrian traffic and business downtown. Davidson is already a town where you park and walk. Huntersville is also on its way to a more pedestrian friendly downtown. You are right that light rail could further drive private sector investment and density along the route. However, the benefit of connecting our towns with NODA, uptown Charlotte, Southend and the airport through light rail and rapid bus networks is enormous. As a native Charlottean, I’d love to go back to a time when there was less density but I also appreciate the concentration uptown activities like the Panthers stadium, Hornets stadium, restaurants, shops and breweries that just didn’t exist in the 80’s.

      Posted by Joel | February 12, 2021, 11:48 am
  9. How can town officials be so adamant in opposition to a increase in taxes when they are against the trains in the first place? They say we never get value for money spent but at every turn they oppose any of Charlotte’s plans for the future. This is clearly backwards thinking. Just because Charlotte is a more progressive city and in control some town officials feel they have to stop everything because it was not their idea. Cutting their nose off to spite their face is not going to get us anywhere. Vote out those who reject growth.

    Posted by Richard Stilwell | February 9, 2021, 8:43 am
    • Richard, thanks for reading the op-ed and the comments. I hope everyone supports Smart Growth. There are a few vocal opponents of light rail and other forms of public transportation. However, I believe the majority of us living in North Mecklenburg would like a safe, clean, reliable and fast light rail and bus network. We just need to speak up, get involved and encourage our representatives to support smart investments in our transportation infrastructure.

      Posted by Joel | February 12, 2021, 11:58 am
  10. A $6B referendum to fund the local share of an est $12B cost & N.Meck/LKN will get only 4 new bus stations & a so called ‘rapid bus transit’. LKN area needs to get much more out of this deal, esp since all they have received is a toll road.

    Posted by Brian | February 9, 2021, 8:45 am
  11. This is assuming this benefit to the Lake Norman area will outweigh the projected costs. Whatever the projected costs are that will be a 100% fabrication. You will need to at least double or triple that cost. And due to limited capacity it will have minimal impact on 77 congestion. This is urban planning at its finest based upon pie ion the sky projections.

    Posted by Mike | February 9, 2021, 12:29 pm
    • Mike, thank you for reading and responding. Fiscal responsibility and private sector involvement will be key to this investment. The blue line was over budget but the benefits have also been over expectations. Lets not only hope, but work to make sure this transportation investment creates long term prosperity for our region.

      Posted by Joel | February 12, 2021, 12:05 pm
  12. He turned me into a newt.

    Posted by Henry | February 12, 2021, 6:07 pm
  13. Thank you for this terrific perspective piece, Mr Olsen.
    I have also had the opportunity to live (Hong Kong) and work in many places around the world and the US, and I share almost all of your viewpoints.
    I think that our current and future residents would benefit greatly from:
    (1) Frontloading projects that benefit north Mecklenburg (see (3)) to help ensure passage of a referendum
    (2) Crafting a more comprehensive funding package to support the effort (transit related development (TRD) taxes, public/private partnerships, specialized bonds, hotel taxes, etc). There seems to be a perception (perhaps true?) that the burden is being purely borne by private citizens through just a sales tax.
    (3) An early focus on both enhanced bus rapid transit (BRT) AND COMPLETING OUR GREENWAY NETWORK throughout the county, but especially in north Mecklenburg
    (4) Pre-negotiating with Norfolk Southern for both the rail lines (help them get what they ostensibly need regarding better access to a north-south freight route along the east coast – involve David Howard from NCDOT) AND the rights of way to “fast track” the development of the Mooresville to Charlotte Trail Greenway route (initially modeled in 2013)
    (5) Inclusion of a burden sharing plan for neighboring counties/towns that would also share in the benefits

    Early focus in these areas/efforts would then allow time for the development of accurate projections to model ridership for any proposed commuter or light rail for North Meck (Red Line). I think that it seems unlikely that, given the combined impact of I-77 toll lanes + enhanced BRT + work from home options post-pandemic + enhanced Greenway networks, we would be able to demonstrate (in the short to intermediate time frame) the needed ridership to qualify for matching (federal) funds (and then we would also likely need to account for autonomous vehicles, given the longer time frames implied). Since federal grants would nominally make up at least half of the needed funding for the major projects like the Red Line, this would seem to be an issue that also needs to be addressed up front. I could envision a gas tax to help drive desired behavior, but that would be extremely problematic to justify to elected officials and to implement locally.

    Posted by Paul Freestone | February 25, 2021, 8:25 am

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