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Q and A with Michael DeVaul

by Mark Peres

July 6,2007

You are a co-chair of a group that will lead a campaign against the repeal of the transit tax. How did you get involved?

I received a call from Jennifer Roberts, chair of the Mecklenburg County Commission. She said a group was being formed to support light rail, that the group would be led by City Council Member Pat Mumford, and she asked whether I would be interested in attending a meeting to learn more. Since I believe that mass transit and the tax that supports it is in the best interest of the region, it was a no-brainer for me. I said yes, that I would attend.

Where was the meeting? Who attended?

The meeting was held at the Chamber of Commerce. Bob Morgan, President of the Chamber, and Natalie English, who heads public policy for the Chamber was in the room. Dennis Rash and Betty Chafin- Rash, Frances Harkey were there. Joni Davis, who works with Duke Energy, Michael Smith of Center City Partners was there. About 15 people in total were in the room – all of whom care about having forms of transit other than just the automobile. We talked about what we could do as a group to lobby citizens about the upcoming vote. We talked about what a campaign on behalf of mass transit might look like and the role that each one of us might play in the effort. I live in University City, and I plan on helping by engaging fellow residents in conversation about mass transit and what it means for the future of the region.

What role is the Chamber playing?

They provided a place for us to meet and may provide us administrative support going forward. The group is out front in terms of public advocacy.

The Chamber issued a press release calling the group “grassroots.” Do you consider the group grassroots?

We’re grassroots to the extent that we expect many people to join the cause. It’s our intent to educate and energize the community. Our charge is to activate those citizens who support mass transit, persuade those who are unsure, and help turn out the vote. Every campaign has leadership. We’re helping provide that leadership by advocating a point of view. The initial working group is diverse in party registration and racial, social and economic make-up. We reflect the community and there is great strength in our diversity. It’s most important for the voters to realize this is mostly about a vision for the future of Charlotte than simply just a vote for transit.

What does the group plan on doing?

This is a campaign like any other campaign and we need to do what campaigns do. We need to get out our message. We need to engage in conversation. We need to raise money to pay for media and literature. Right now, we don’t have a nickel. The co-chairs will be hosting forums in neighborhoods around the city, reaching out to their personal networks, asking people who support the vision to step up. Everyone who cares about this has work to do.

If the benefits of light-rail are so self-evident, why is there so much work to do to ensure support? Why aren’t you more confident?

We are confident. And it’s not just about light rail. It’s about a total transportation and land use system that will help manage growth and provide us a quality of life well into the 21st century. The city will support mass transit just as it did when it voted in favor of the tax in 1998, but let’s be clear: anti-transit leaders have done a good job seizing on cost over-runs to make an anti-tax case. CATS has some tactical issues on costs that we must all address. Many just see what they see now – one corridor not yet running – and it’s harder to showcase what is not yet built and the benefits it will provide.

What is the vision? What is your message?

What I will be sharing personally with neighbors in University City is that half a million more people will be on our roads by 2017. We need an entire collection of transportation tools in our toolkit to move people efficiently – from cars to light rail to streetcars to buses. It will be less expensive for us to do the work now than later. If we kill the tax, we will likely dry up other sources of money that are tied to it and we will have to pay monies back and other services will suffer. On the other hand, if we maintain the tax that we are already paying, we can better connect University City to the central core and to the rest of the city. Mass transit brings people together, generates development and helps build community. It is an investment in our future.

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