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Blue Line Chips For A Streetcar Poker Game

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There’s a tried and true maxim in high stakes poker, which successful card sharks ignore at their own peril: don’t bluff unless you’re willing to lose the pot.

With that as a guiding principle, consider Gov. Pat McCrory’s recent use of his newly won bully pulpit as leverage to dissuade Charlotte city councilmembers from moving forward a controversial streetcar project, with an accompanying warning that doing so could risk millions in state matching dollars for an extension of the McCrory Express, a.k.a. the Lynx Blue Line light rail to University City.

There are, to be certain, myriad legitimate reasons for opposing a multi-million-dollar boondoggle to nowhere, and McCrory is on the right track in his apparent efforts to scuttle an inherently flawed streetcar project that has little merit other than as a political chit for Democrats pandering to the city’s West Side vote. Indeed, the streetcar was essentially birthed as such, when the uptown lunch bunch used it to help ensure that the Black Political Caucus of Charlotte-Mecklenburg was on board with efforts to defeat a repeal of the half-cent transit tax.

It’s particularly ironic, then, that the streetcar was subsequently yanked from under the Charlotte Area Transit System’s funding umbrella as a way to free up millions of dollars that could be diverted to the McCrory Express extension. That would be the same Blue Line extension, evidence suggests, that was used last year as an effective tool to strong-arm enough Democrats on the Charlotte City Council into rejecting Mayor Anthony Foxx’s proposed tax-hike capital plan that included a Foxx Faux Streetcar to Nowhere.

The mayor, however, is still pushing aggressively for a spending plan that includes his streetcar, tax hike be damned. And in that light, it’s not unreasonable to view McCrory’s recent comments as a tell that state funding for the Blue Line is again in play as a hole card to keep some councilmembers from reversing their streetcar/budget vote.

All of which begs the obvious question: is it a skillfully crafted bluff, or is McCrory actually ready and willing to expend political capital and clout to scrap state dollars for a transit project that he has spent the better part of the last decade championing?

This is a former Queen City mayor, after all, who has historically shown he would rather surgically remove his own spleen with a rusty scalpel and eat it for lunch, than cause any section of the vaunted light rail Lynx Blue Line to be derailed or delayed.

Part and parcel of that history is McCrory’s propensity for hustling non-traditional funding streams to keep light-rail projects afloat, going so far as sharing tricks of the trade as part of his traveling roadshow that counsels transit boosters on ways to secure loot for their pet projects; while locally, despite a revisionist history he favors about not tapping revenue outside a dedicated transit tax, he’s backed property tax-increment financing schemes as a means for funding the Red Line commuter rail to north Mecklenburg.

McCrory, in poker parlance, is all in for all things rail transit.

And there, of course, is the rub. What happens if Foxx can convince enough Democrat councilmembers to call McCrory’s hand; or more on point, force a play on a possible bluff, and in turn flip the council’s vote to support a misguided capital plan that includes a monstrously expensive streetcar?

Foxx has already started dealing cards to help fill an inside straight for the streetcar, adroitly so in a game of political poker, using his State of the City address this week to shape the debate not in terms of funding sources or taxes, but in stark terms of race and class warfare.

“We have a growing disconnect in Charlotte between the haves and the have-nots, between our vibrant areas and those in decline,” Foxx said in setting the stage for his Streetcar Kabuki Theater. “…history, perception and demographic changes and prejudice can no longer serve as excuses for growing poverty, crime, low educational attainment and poor infrastructure in some parts of Charlotte.”

And in case anyone missed his point, Foxx followed up with the main act:

With all due respect, it is not about whether to use property taxes for transit. Since 1998, we have used property taxes for transit. Last year, we increased the use of property taxes for transit to make the Blue Line Extension work. In future years, the Red Line Commuter Rail project funding would use property taxes. There has not been an iota of opposition to these projects. But the streetcar is different. Why?

In our own way, we, all of us, have fallen victim to low expectations. We look at our neighbors in East and West Charlotte, and we cannot bring ourselves to believe that jobs can be created in those corridors, that new housing stock can be built there or that businesses large and small will ever want to go there. If Charlotte were a business, we would have closed those business lines or tried to sell them long ago. That’s the difference between the public sector and the private sector. We don’t have that option. We either make our city better or we let it get worse. I am asking all of Charlotte to choose making our city better.

Asking all of Charlotte? Not by a long shot. Foxx’s rhetoric is tailored primarily to the four Democrats (Claire Fallon, Patrick Cannon, Michael Barnes, and Beth Pickering) who voted against his tax-hike capital budget.

Translation: If you don’t support a spending plan that includes a streetcar, you’re betraying Charlotte’s poor and minority communities and abetting a rich, white Republican governor’s efforts to keep us down on the plantation where he thinks we belong.

Ridiculous? Absolutely.

Will it work? Time will tell.

Place your bets.

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