Jennifer Watson Roberts is a former Charlotte mayor and former member of the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners.
The world’s leaders just wrapped up a global conference on climate change, where they focused on adapting to a warmer climate and halting the increase in global temperature.
Scientists and engineers know how we can do this — by reducing emissions, transforming the energy sector with more wind and solar, supporting cleaner transportation options, incenting better agricultural policies and more. They agreed that local governments, especially in our growing cities, are a big part of the solution.
North Carolina has made some strides out of necessity. In the United States, we are second only to Texas in the billions of dollars we have had to spend to recover from extreme weather events. These disasters are increasing as the climate warms.
Slowly, though, we are making progress. With the recent HB951 energy bill passed by our state, we have set goals to reduce carbon emission – goals our utilities will have to support. With only 7% of our state’s energy currently coming from solar, however, we have a ways to go.
The City of Charlotte passed a Strategic Energy Action Plan that aims for city operations to be carbon free by 2030. But scientists tell us that these goals are still not ambitious enough, and there are still too many in government and business silos who have not learned what it means to be sustainable.
Almost every policy decision has an impact on climate change. If everyone is not on board with our sustainability goals, we will not reach them.
The latest local example of being tone deaf on climate change is the recent request by Atrium/Wake Forest for $28 million in taxpayer subsidies for a parking deck at the new medical school planned for Charlotte.
Let me be clear; I love this project and what it will do for our region and for healthcare, but I do not love the idea of public money being spent to fund a parking deck. There are numerous reasons this is a bad decision, but here are just three:
First, this tax money is not necessary.
One county commissioner wrote to a constituent, saying: “The County’s contribution towards the infrastructure of the project is necessary to bring these benefits to reality.” This is simply not true. Atrium has $2 billion in cash reserves and received $440 million in tax benefits last year, but only provided $260 million in charity care. It clearly has the means to build it with their own money, and that $28 million could go to other pressing county needs, such as affordable housing, racial justice, or mental health services.
We are in a housing and opportunity-gap crisis. Parking for a private entity is not a priority. Even without the parking deck funds, Atrium will still get $47 million in tax benefits for other aspects of the project, such as stormwater upgrades, road improvements and more. And this tax subsidy on top of the entity’s non-profit status is, as Commissioner Rodriguez-McDowell so aptly put it, double dipping.
Second, parking decks do not align with sustainability or with our carbon reduction goals.
How is parking for polluting vehicles, at $35,000 a spot, a priority?
Our state, city and county have told the public we want to decrease emissions in city operations to net zero by 2030, and for the whole community by 2050. Vehicle emissions comprise nearly a third of our greenhouse gas emissions. We cannot get there without fewer vehicles on the roads, more bike lanes, and more transit. This parking deck will last for 50 years. How is funding it helping?
Some predict that, with the growth of autonomous vehicles and alternate transportation, parking decks will not be needed in 10 to 20 years. They could become stranded assets. We already see empty parking decks in Uptown. The new facility will be easily accessed by transit, rideshare, walking, scooter and other cleaner forms of transportation – and that is actually one reason the decision was made to build it there.
Third, a city-subsidized parking deck could torpedo our hopes for federal infrastructure funding.
We must remember that funding from the recently passed federal infrastructure bill and the Build Back Better bill will be awarded through competitive grants. How does using public money for car parking (for a private entity) show the federal government that our community is committed to transit infrastructure and thus should receive funds ahead of other cities? They will likely think that we are not seriously committed to transit and will award the money elsewhere.
Funding a parking deck for a private entity with tax dollars is bad policy, period. If we want to leave a healthy planet to our children, it is time for all of us to get serious about climate solutions, now.