Charlotte voters make tough, smart choice

These days Americans aren’t known for making tough choices. To the contrary, our national reputation is one of being soft. We eat too many bad foods and complain about our health, sit around way too much instead of exercising, and continue to drive gas-guzzling, huge cars when we know they damage the environment and play into the hands of foreign dictators who control the oil.

Same way at the voting booth. We let Social Security problems mount, watch health care get way too expensive, and just sit back and complain about the spiraling cost of a college education and oil. We refuse to elect representatives who will tackle the significant problems this country faces.

Then something stands that theory on its head. That’s what happened a couple of weeks ago in Charlotte-Mecklenburg. Voters went to the polls and turned back an attempt to repeal a tax that is paying for the construction of a light rail system and an expansion of the metro area’s bus system. The half-cent sales tax was adopted in 1998, and critics had fought for the ballot initiative that would have repealed it. Their primary complaints were about huge cost overruns for the light rail.

If any North Carolinian hasn’t visited downtown Charlotte lately, then we would encourage them to do so. The Queen City has re-invented itself and has a thriving inner city with museums, restaurants, hotels, shops, markets and clubs. It is a bustling banking and business center on weekdays and home to major league sports teams with the Bobcats and Panthers.

The early phases of the light rail system will become operational in 2008. The tens of thousands of workers in the city’s skyscrapers will be able to park in outlying areas and take the train to work, reducing traffic congestion, pollution and parking woes. Same for those who come to Charlotte after hours for its nightlife or who take their kids to Discovery Place on the weekends. Charlotte will be the first city in the state to have an expansive light rail system.

But the tax voters kept on the books will also serve an even more pressing need. More than two-thirds of the $77 million it nets each year will expand the bus system that helps the low-income and elderly get to work, to appointments and just to get around.

The Mecklenburg metro area is home to 1.4 million people and is projected to grow by 200,000 in each coming decade. It needs public transit, as the experience of other big cities proves. There almost certainly will be more cars on the road in the next 20 years, but there will be fewer than there would be otherwise if investments are made in public transportation. Supporters of the rail and bus plan cite the costs other large cities are now paying as they try to retro-fit public transit systems long after their populations have boomed.

A strong coalition of anti-tax groups and the conservative wing of the GOP fought hard to get this tax repealed. But perhaps it is dawning on some conservatives that public transit is good for business. Long-time Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory is a Republican who was able to build a coalition of business and civic leaders who supported the tax. Seventy percent of voters supported the measure.

There will come a day when this country embraces mass transit as the best answer to many of our big problems — oil prices and shortages, automobile pollution and traffic jams. When that happens, perhaps Charlotte citizens will be able to count themselves among those who saw the light earlier than most.

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