News: CJ Exclusives

UNCC Resources Push Charlotte Transit

University writes report written to specs of opponents of tax repeal

State employees and resources were used to prepare a report written to the specifications of opponents of the repeal of the half-cent transit tax levied in Mecklenburg County, emails to and from UNCC Chancellor Phil Dubois show.

In a June 13 memo, which accompanied release of the emails, UNCC Assistant General Counsel Jesh Humphrey says, “the study originated with a series of questions from Bob Morgan of the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce posed to Chancellor Dubois.”

However, at no point in the 28-page study is the role of Chamber President Morgan revealed. After the report was released in early May, its principal author also failed to disclose the report’s ties to Morgan and the chamber on at least two occasions.

The chamber is a major light-rail booster, dating to the 1998 countywide vote that levied the half-cent tax. Two weeks ago the chamber helped to birth a campaign to oppose the tax-repeal effort and is expected to help fund that effort lavishly.

The push to repeal the half-cent tax, which raises about $70 million a year for the Charlotte Area Transit System, burst into the consciousness of the chamber and the Charlotte power structure March 1. That day The Charlotte Observer reported that the petition drive to get a repeal on the ballot was already past its halfway point.

City officials immediately rushed to discredit the repeal effort, alleging without evidence that signers of the petition were being misled or did not understand what they were signing. Officials also warned that property taxes would have to be increased to compensate for the loss of revenue and that bus service would have to be slashed.

The Charlotte Business Journal reported that Mayor Pat McCrory was working on a “counteroffensive” to the repeal effort and was asking city staff to analyze what the repeal would mean.

By March 3 the chamber was circulating an e-alert to members citing the petition’s threat to CATS’ transit plans. A week later Morgan was quoted as saying, “We were strongly supportive in 1998 of transit. I don’t think you would see us pull back.”

On March 14, a list of 23 questions was emailed from Morgan to Dubois. These would form the basis for the UNCC report.

The questions ranged from the obvious (“Will current levels of bus service be affected and how?”) to the bizarre (“If I signed a petition to force a referendum to eliminate the half cent sales tax for transit, but do not support that effort and would like to have my name removed from the petition, what can I do?”).

On March 16 Dubois, who has repeatedly advocated construction of the $750 million Northeast light-rail line from Uptown to the UNCC campus, replied to Morgan that he would have to consult with counsel “about what we can do as a public institution,” indicating a awareness of the issue of using public funds to take sides in a political debate.

After receiving guidance, Dubois told Morgan on March 21 that, “I think we’re clear to go ahead to do this.”

Dubois then evidently turned to Dennis Rash, a longtime member of Uptown power elite and retired Bank of America executive who holds the title of executive in residence at UNCC’s Center for Transportation Policy Studies.

Rash was a trustee for the North Carolina Smart Growth Alliance and has praised the county’s half-cent levy and light-rail plan in speeches. He is married to Betty Chafin Rash, a former Charlotte City councilwoman. She was named to the chamber-backed campaign effort to defeat the repeal measure June 8.

On March 22 Rash emailed Dubois and copied Edd Hauser, director of the Transportation Center. Hauser is a state employee and is credited as the primary author of the pro-CATS report.

Rash said in that email:

Phil:

Edd and I have talked about this matter, and he is willing to take the lead in this research himself. … Edd and I also agree that I should not be a spokesman for the Center in answering these questions. I have too much history as an advocate to be able to function now as an independent analyst. … We will keep you informed of the progress, and provide a copy of the final results before we send the final draft on to the Chamber.

An hour later Dubois replied: “Perfect. Thanks.”

The email exchange indicates that by March 22 Hauser was aware of the chamber’s request and had committed to do the study as outlined by Morgan’s questions. Also, it shows Rash as eager to obscure his role in the study, as the study’s effect on public opinion was of manifest — perhaps singular — importance to the enterprise. And it shows Dubois was kept in the loop as the report was written, underscoring his role as sponsor of the report. It also indicates that the chamber had some sort of final say on the content of the report or that the decision to send a final draft to the chamber would be unnecessary.

It is not clear whether the chamber requested or received any changes to the report.

At this writing both Dubois and Morgan have not responded to email queries asking for clarification of their roles in the drafting of the report.

However, a larger problem for the report’s author looms. Hauser’s previous accounts of how the report came to be cannot be squared with the emails released by UNCC.

By March 22 Hauser had committed to do the report, but contrast that with this account from the Observer’s Mary Newsom announcing the report to the world May 7 on her blog:

So says a new research report from Edd Hauser. Hauser is founding director of UNC Charlotte’s Center for Transportation Policy Studies, and he has a lengthy and impressive pedigree in transportation engineering and planning, including master’s and Ph.D. degrees from N.C. State in transportation engineering and a master’s in regional planning from UNC. …

He happened to see a March 26 City Council meeting at which Charlotte Area Transit System chief Ron Tober and City Manager Pam Syfert gave their version of the effect on city taxes and CATS if a proposal to eliminate the county’s half cent sales tax for transit succeeds.

“Emotions are running amok in this. I wanted to start looking at the data,” Hauser told me today. He and colleagues at the CRPS started looking at the numbers. “Our objective was to layout relevant data. I had no idea what it would look like when I started.”

The March 26 City Council meeting was four days after Hauser committed to Rash and Dubois to do the study.

Hauser’s account of the study’s origin on the May 21 edition of “Charlotte Talks” on WFAE-FM is also at odds with the email record and UNCC counsel Humphrey’s account of that record.

“But no one came to you, you picked this as a topic to study,” host Mike Collins asked Hauser.
“Oh right,” Hauser replied.

Study impact

Immediately upon its release in early May, CATS’ defenders seized on the Hauser study as proof that CATS’ critics were mistaken.

“Facts Bring Fresh Air; In emotional transit debate, UNCC study adds welcome data” was the headline of a Charlotte Observer editorial published May 9. Almost immediately city and county officials began to refer to the study to counter evidence that CATS’ spending habits and project management were out-of-line when compared to that of other cities.

As recently as June 14, CATS chief Ron Tober told citizens at a town hall meeting concerned about the cost of light rail and traffic congestion to consult the Hauser study as a source of unbiased analysis of CATS’ performance.

However, the Hauser report contains apparent errors of fact.

The rapid run-up in the cost of the South light rail line to $463 million, about double original projections, has left CATS vulnerable to questions about its ability to manage the capital costs of light-rail projects, projects such as future light-rail lines in the county.

Morgan specifically asked for a comparison of the cost per mile of the South line to the costs of other cities. The Hauser report picked a questionable universe of other light-rail projects, some dating to 1986, in an attempt to put CATS’ spending in perspective and answer the chamber.

It did, but not in the intended manner.

A table on Page 17 of the report lists the South line’s original cost per mile as $48 million, the same as the current cost. But in September 2000 when the Federal Transit Administration approved the project for the preliminary engineering phase the cost was $30 million per mile, or $331 million for 11 miles.

Table 11 of the report shows the original cost of the South line project as $221 million. However, this initial cost number was omitted from the previous data set. Using $221 million, the original cost per mile should have been calculated at $20 million per mile, not $48 million.

CATS missed the cost per mile number for South line by 140 percent, something of which the Hauser report makes no mention. The final tally for the South line is still not in. The only other project in the Hauser comparison data set that comes close to missing the mark as badly as CATS is St. Louis at 107 percent and that project is the subject of on-going litigation.

Also, Table 11 lists the original project length as 9.6 miles, but the original length as approved by the FTA was 11 miles. Only when Pineville opted out of the project in 2002 did the project shrink to its current length. Tables 10 and 11 of the report fail to include any kind of date framework for the costs cited.

Seattle’s transit project is included as a relevant measure for Charlotte, but Seattle has a cost per mile of $179 million, more than three times that of the South line. Seattle is also using a 600-ton robot from Japan to bore through hillsides and to help place at least one station 150 feet below ground.

No giant robots from Japan or underground stations are planned along South Boulevard.

The failure to identify the chamber as the source of the request for the pro-CATS study also breaks with the center’s own previous practice. In a report released in September 2005 by Hauser on the economic impact of city-owned Charlotte-Douglas Airport, the Charlotte chamber’s role in requesting the study was cited in the introduction. A year later a Hauser report on the economic impact of Raleigh-Durham Airport cited a request from the Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority.

“This brief study was developed and written as an independent research report by the Center for Transportation Policy Studies at UNC Charlotte,” is all the pro-CATS report declares.

It is not clear whether any of six other members of the UNCC faculty cited in the Hauser report as having contributed their “time and ideas on the impact of a repeal” were aware that the report originated with a request from the chamber.

Morgan’s reasons for going to Dubois for the study also raise questions. The chamber has its own research and public policy staff. It often generates valuable information on business starts, employment, population growth, cost-of-living, and commuting patterns. Because the Hauser study consisted of little more than selectively pulling information off a Web site raises the question of why decision was made to go to UNCC for the job.

In fact, the UNCC study doubled back to the chamber for data on commuting flows and drive times in Mecklenburg County anyway. Morgan, intentionally or not, had asked Dubois and UNCC for research the chamber had already done.

The available evidence suggests to some that the chamber, with the assistance of Dubois, effectively laundered a pro-CATS, anti-repeal advocacy document through Charlotte’s major research institution — using state tax dollars along the way.