More than Just a Train

I'm starting to believe the hyperbole about the revolution being spawned by Charlotte's new light-rail line.
June 1, 2008 AT 3:00 AM
Alex Marshall
By Alex Marshall  |  Columnist
Senior Fellow at The Regional Plan Association in New York City

Riding the spiffy silver and blue trains of Charlotte's new light-rail line, I watch through the train's windows how cranes and excavators push around dirt for new development projects. Back when urban junkies -- myself included -- dreamed that cities could center around train lines, we railed at the formula-oriented developers who could crank out only cul-de-sacs and subdivisions near the newest highway off-ramp. They ignored the possibility of putting apartment buildings and mixed-used projects beside a trolley line, even if a city could manage to get a rail line built.

No longer. Now big international companies such as Cherokee Investment Partners, which is involved here in Charlotte, are poised -- even eager -- to swoop down, buy land and put up pedestrian-friendly businesses and homes around new transit stations. And they're being joined by plenty of competitors. This is not to suggest that progress in Charlotte has been easy. Arranging streets, parking, condominiums, shops, plazas and other components of development around transit here involves many choices. Planners and developers still are struggling to balance the competing needs of parking and active street life in these new projects. But in terms of a market and a vision, there is increasing clarity. Living near a transit stop has become part of a tried-and-true formula of downtown living. Charlotte opened its $465 million, 15-stop, 10-mile "blue line" last November. LYNX, as it is called, has about 13,000 riders daily, well ahead of the low-ball federal projections. Now, the city and region are working on the many other ideas for lines and extensions. A total of 7,000 new condominiums are planned along the line.

Seeing how successful Charlotte's new line is, I start believing what I first dismissed as hyperbole -- that it was revolutionary. David King, who helped shepherd through assistance for LYNX from the state's transportation department when he was its deputy secretary, says, "Most people don't realize this is going to change the face and shape of Charlotte."

Last November, just weeks before LYNX opened, a grassroots referendum backed by angry anti-tax and anti-transit activists asked voters to repeal the half-cent sales tax for transit funding. It failed by a two-to-one margin. "The light-rail vote was a seminal moment," says Mark Peres, the president and editor of Charlotte Viewpoint, a magazine about culture and civic life. "We were being held hostage by a minority viewpoint. Those people just sort of went away. It's just seismic in its impact."

The original plan for financing the system, however, builds in some difficulties for the future. Back in the late 1990s, Mecklenburg County and the city of Charlotte banded together with Raleigh, Durham, Greensboro and other cities to push a bill through the legislature allowing counties to propose tax increases to their citizens to fund transit. Charlotte's voters approved the tax in a referendum. There also emerged an agreement that the state DOT would match local funding, or 25 percent of the total cost. The federal government was expected to pay 50 percent.

Now, as new lines are planned that go beyond Mecklenburg, there is a question of who will pay and how. Will surrounding counties and localities enact their own sales taxes? Or is Charlotte expected to be the primary local funder, even for lines outside Mecklenburg County? And what should the role of the state transportation agency be? It is, after all, the one agency whose jurisdiction cuts across multiple county lines.

I believe the parties should explore having the state agency take more direct responsibility for building and paying for transit within urban areas. When the state builds a road, it takes on the burden of coordinating with all the counties it goes through. It buys land, negotiates rights of way and designs and builds a project. Why should transit be any different? DOTs are traditionally highway-minded, and North Carolina's is certainly no exception. But bringing these agencies into the transit fold suggests a way to turn them into allies. Eventually, it makes sense for state transportation money to be portable and to be used for either roads or transit lines, as conditions fit.

Whatever the models developed, it's a near-certainty that the new lines here in Charlotte will be built. There is simply too much interest in this new way of living.

Alex Marshall
Alex Marshall | Columnist |