Can A Sprawling Southern City Remake Its Transit Networks?

Charlotte has developed for people traveling long distances in cars. To get its downtown flourishing, it's going to take a major rethinking--and a lot of political will.

Charlotte, North Carolina, has been among the fastest-growing cities in the nation over the last decade. Its sunny weather, relatively low housing prices, and job growth, fueled by major employers including Duke Energy, Wells Fargo, and Bank of America, are huge draws for newcomers to the city. But like many southern metropolitan areas, which came to a dead halt after getting small amounts of snow this winter, its transportation network is lacking.

“Our transit system has not kept up with population growth,” says Shannon Binns, executive director of Sustain Charlotte, an advocacy group for broadly-defined sustainable urban growth. “We’re the poster child of sprawl. Because Charlotte has grown outward more than it has grown upward, the distances that people are traveling are tremendous.”

This challenge of improving public transit systems--and this opportunity--is one of the major ones ahead of Patrick Cannon, the new mayor of Charlotte, according to Binns. (Co.Exist has been tracking a class of eight new mayors of major U.S. cities who took office in January. See: “The Class of 2014: The New Mayors Who Are Building The Future of America’s Cities”).

In Charlotte, many transit issues are tied to geographic divisions in class, wealth, and economic opportunity in the growing city. The largest tax-base in Charlotte, for example, is in the richer southern section, which has generally opposed using its property taxes to fund a proposed streetcar line that connects the lower-income eastern and western ends. “We need this streetcar to lift the boats of these parts of our city that really need to be connected,” says Binns, whose organization recently put together its “Charlotte 2030” plan that outlines a future vision for the city. “It’s not even so much about transportation, but about economic development.”

Cannon may be the right person to tackle these issues, despite the fact that he will face the challenges of potentially alienating some supporters. Binns was impressed with Cannon’s political courage on this issue when he was the only one among 10 candidates for city office who expressed support for increasing the local sales tax to fund the 2030 Transit Plan, in response to a Sustain Charlotte candidate survey in November. Already in his term, Cannon has traveled to Washington, D.C., twice and has made transportation (as well as renovating the city’s airport tower) a key issue in his federal lobbying efforts.

In the long-term, Cannon has the chance to set in motion for Charlotte to become not only an economic powerhouse in the Southeast but also a more sustainable one: It is already the only southeastern city to have even one light rail line. By 2030, it hopes to add several more.

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