Vi Lyles
Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles (Photo by John D. Simmons

By Steve Harrison, The Charlotte Observer

Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles was one of a few Democrats to meet Monday with President Donald Trump, who unveiled his controversial infrastructure plan at the White House.

Trump’s $1.5 trillion plan has been panned by Democratic leaders, and it could make it considerably harder for Charlotte to expand its transit system, which has been estimated to cost as much as $7 billion. In her public statement about the plan, Lyles did not criticize Trump’s proposal, which relies on private investment and could slash federal money for transit.

“The citizens of Charlotte expect the mayor and City Council to work with the federal government to ensure that our transit system, highways, water and energy infrastructure are world class,” Lyles said in a news release from the city. “I stand ready to work with the president and the leadership of both parties on Capitol Hill in partnership to advance infrastructure legislation that creates jobs, makes getting to work easier, improves our environment and prepares our economy for the next decade and beyond.”

She added she looks forward “to doing my part in bringing home federal dollars to address our infrastructure needs.”

But there could be far fewer federal dollars from the city’s infrastructure. Trump’s $1.5 trillion plan calls for only $200 billion in new federal spending. The rest would come from state and local governments or private companies.

The Charlotte Area Transit System wants to build two new rail lines that could cost as much as $7 billion. One line would run from Matthews to the airport. The other would run from uptown to Lake Norman.

The city’s first two light-rail lines – the Blue Line and the Blue Line extension – were built with a 50 percent federal match. The city and state paid for the rest.

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The Trump infrastructure proposal would reduce that federal match to 20 percent. For a $7 billion plan, that could mean Charlotte would have to find an additional $2.1 billion in funding.

It’s possible that Charlotte could attempt to build its transit system through the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts program, which would be separate from the new infrastructure plan. Dana Fenton, the city’s lobbyist, said the Trump administration hasn’t addressed whether a 50 percent match would remain in New Starts.

The city’s news release said Lyles was one of 24 elected officials who attended the meeting. The group included governors, mayors, state legislators, county commissioners and an agriculture commissioner.

Of the 24 people who attended, five were Democrats: Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, Columbia, S.C. Mayor Stephen Benjamin, Vicksburg, Miss. Mayor George Flaggs Jr. and Lyles.

Last year, City Council member Dimple Ajmera said that Trump supporters had no place in the mayor’s office or on City Council.

Lyles is less partisan than her predecessor, Jennifer Roberts, also a Democrat. Lyles said she never considered not accepting the invitation from the White House.

The infrastructure plan calls for a streamlined permitting process – a proposal that was criticized by the Southern Environmental Law Center in Chapel Hill Monday. Lyles said that could be promising for Charlotte.

“It was good news to hear that permitting (could be made faster),” she said. “There are examples of a project being studied for 10 years. That’s the one place where the White House can have immediate impact.”

Private money is funding most of the Interstate 77 toll lane project in north Mecklenburg. But it would considerably harder finding private money to pay for the transit projects, which generate less revenue than toll roads or toll lanes.

CATS hasn’t said how it would pay for the new transit lines, though one possibility is a higher sales tax. Having to find an additional $2.1 billion would mean a much larger tax increase for Charlotteans.

“It’s going to be hard, it’s going to be hard work,” Lyles told council members Monday. “We will have to decide how much we can accomplish and go after whatever funding is available.”

The American Public Transit Association said Monday the Trump proposal would be a “big mistake” and that it “strongly” opposes the “deep cuts” in existing transit infrastructure.

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