Charlotte mass transit at a crossroads

With earlier rail and bus gains leveling off and funding for future projects stalled, new opportunities and obstacles come into focus.

By Reid Creager

Wes Seeger liked taking the bus and light rail during his 22 years in the Chicago area. When he lived in suburban Evanston, the Metra rail stop was a block away for his 6:05 a.m. departure; when he lived in Naperville, it was a mile away and he rode his bike to the station. When in the city, his bus stop was on the corner and the “L” was about four blocks away.

“Delays would happen, but given the number of years I rode, it was minimal,” he says. “Metra had occasional issues such as switching problems, freight delays ... nothing major.”

Now a director in the rates and currencies group at an uptown Charlotte bank, the 51-year-old Seeger moved to Myers Park three years ago. But he doesn’t use mass transit here.

“I did when we first moved, but they no longer have my bus stop on Sharon and it's very inconvenient,” he says. “I like the Blue Line and think I would use it if it was convenient.”

Seeger has plenty of company in his willingness to embrace and use mass transit in Charlotte. In a late 2012 poll of Mecklenburg County residents by the New York City-based Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, 58 percent said they would prefer to use public transportation if it were convenient. 

Charlotte and North Carolina leaders are working on that. The city has had the $473 million, 9.6-mile Lynx Blue Line that runs from Uptown to Pineville since 2007, with work under way on a $1.2 billon, 9.3-mile extension to the UNC Charlotte campus that has a 2017 ETA; next year’s planned opening of the first phase of the $37 million, 1.5-mile Gold Line streetcar intended to connect the city’s east and west sides, with a $126 million, 2.5-mile expansion in the works; and a bus system that at last report had 73 routes connecting Uptown and six suburbs in Mecklenburg County. The streetcar line that’s projected to eventually run 10 miles would cost about $450 million, published reports say.

That’s just the start of a broader transit commitment adopted in 2006 by the Metropolitan Transit Commission: the 2030 Transit Corridor System Plan, which calls for 29 miles of commuter rail, 21 miles of light rail, 10 miles of streetcar, and an expanded network of buses and other transit services. Other proposed projects identified include the Red Line, a $660 million, 30-mile commuter rail line from Charlotte to Mooresville; and the $2.3 billion Silver Line, a 13.5-mile bus rapid transit line from Center City to Central Piedmont Community College’s Levine Campus.

As with mass transit packages in other major cities, this vision comes with abundant potential and questions. A closer look at the region’s current and future transit menu reveals some seldom-reported opportunities as well as obstacles. These warrant scrutiny as Charlotte inches toward becoming a mass-transit destination and its residents contemplate whether that’s something they want.

The system appears healthy and dependable, even amid ridership losses the past several years and signs that segments of it may be underutilized. Light rail-driven development, a driver in the success of current and future projects, is the source of many well-publicized successes – though the magnitude of those successes has been questioned in published studies. And ever-present funding challenges heightened by the worst recession since the Great Depression have recently convinced local and state leaders that they must turn to nontraditional revenue sources if the comprehensive plan is to be realized anywhere near its 2030 time peg.

An underutilized system?

Shannon Binns
 parks his bicycle at The Common Market in Plaza Midwood as he arrives to be interviewed. A fit and energetic 37, Binns was born and raised in rural Iowa but has lived in urban hubs including Washington, D.C. He has a Master of Public Administration in Environmental Science and Policy.

The founder of Sustain Charlotte – a nonprofit dedicated to “advancing economic vitality, social equity and environmental sustainability,” Binns has lived here since 2007. He shuns the world-class city cliché in favor of pragmatic terms such as land use, development and convenience.

When asked whether mass transit is well utilized in Charlotte, he says, “If we just look at the Blue Line we are taking full advantage, and then some.” End-of-2013 rail ridership figures from the American Public Transportation Association showed a 27,000 increase in estimated unlinked transit passenger weekday trips over the previous year, to an average of 15,400.

Other numbers aren’t as positive in larger contexts. Ridership averaged 19,700 as recently as the first quarter of 2009 before the effects of the recession hit hard and long. Even the 2013 ridership increase reflects an increase of just one-half of 1 percent – compared to the 1.5 percent increase in light rail ridership nationally, and to last year’s 1.8 percent population increase for the Charlotte region reported by the Charlotte Chamber. 

Charlotte Area Transit System officials say the completion of the Blue Line Extension will be the impetus for increased ridership, with 50,000 riders along the route by 2035.
Binns says the rest of the system, namely buses, “is not being fully utilized” even with the half-cent sales tax for transit approved by voters in 1998 that helped expand the service. That’s underscored by the widely reported 476,000 decline in bus ridership in 2013. (Hillary Ryan, public and community relations specialist for the CATS, supplied figures for fiscal year 2012 and 2013 that showed a loss of 386,997.) 

“The primary reason is, it’s not convenient for most people, and because of the layout of the system and the frequency. We don’t have any bus rapid transit (an element of the 2030 master plan). Bus rapid transit does speed things up.

“Even if you’re going downtown, or even someone who lives very close to a line, given the number of stops that it makes, that’s a detriment, too. As long as it’s faster to drive, most people are going to choose the faster path.”

He also suggests a factor that few public officials address. “The other reason is that there is very much a culture here in Charlotte that buses are for poor people. There’s a stigma with buses that’s a very real issue that people don’t really talk about. … You find a lot of people who would probably tell you to ride the light rail anytime they can, but they would never get on a bus.
“Right or wrong, it’s a reality. The reason it’s important that we execute the 2030 transit plan is that there is significant rail in that plan, in addition to the buses.”

Asked whether Charlotte could ever become a city that doesn’t rely much on cars, Binns says: “It’s certainly possible, but we’re very far from that because our transit system is so limited compared to, say, Chicago – and because of our land use pattern.

“We have very much grown around the idea of being able to drive everywhere. And we have built our street network and our land use plans around the ability of people to be able to drive everywhere they want to go. It’s very hard to retrofit. It’s not impossible, but it’s very difficult.”

He would like to see a single, centralized department that plans all transit-related concerns.

“The good news is that I think our planning department and our transportation department and our transit agency all coordinate and communicate more than they ever did,” he says. “But unfortunately, they’re still separate departments."

“We need to consider combining those departments so they can coexist and so that when we’re doing land use planning we’re very much doing transportation planning at the same time and vice versa. In the past we’ve historically done those things somewhat separately, which has created a lot of the challenges we have right now.”

Development: What’s the full story?

It’s been said that mass transit is not about transportation; it’s about development.

Binns says people often overlook Sustain Charlotte’s emphasis on the development component. During the citywide debate about proceeding with the Charlotte (Gold Line) streetcar project, the organization released a report last May touting the successes of streetcar projects in three other cities that said Portland, Ore., has seen $3.5 billion in development along its streetcar route – a 34:1 return on its investment.

In 2009, the city of Charlotte hired Bay Area Economics to study the potential economic impacts of a streetcar system. It determined the development of the Gold Line would result in an estimated addition of 731 residential units, 21,800 square feet of retail space, 276,700 square feet of office space and 101 hotel rooms – or about at least 1.1 million square feet added in new development.  

Whether it’s light rail or streetcars, the full truth about the benefits of development is often a matter of point of view. For example, according to CATS, the Blue Line has resulted in about $1.4 billion in planned or new development. David Hartgen says that’s not true.

Hartgen is a retired professor of transportation studies at UNC Charlotte and leader of the Hartgen Group, which conducts studies on transportation-related issues. He advocates for roads and has been a frequent critic of light rail. 

He led a detailed study of development along the corridor that accounted for factors such as actual growth (not announced growth), existing regional and local growth trends. His conclusion: The value of development added by light rail is about $246 million over 20 years – or about 13 percent of the value estimated by CATS.

Hartgen isn’t saying that light rail can’t spark development; he’s saying that the relationship between investment near rail stations and ridership isn’t direct. He says development along South Boulevard “is mostly vacant. If you drive that route or drive the line in the early evening and look carefully at the lights in the apartments, you’ll see that most of the lights aren’t on and that most of the storefronts have not been sold. ... 

“Even the development that is there was likely moved from other locations in the region. It’s not new stuff that came to Charlotte. It’s stuff that would have been developed somewhere else in Charlotte had the line not been there. Essentially, that was a developable wedge that was ripe for development because the buildings there were falling apart, it was very close to downtown and had good access. It would have been developed whether we built a light rail line there or not.”

Melissa Currie, a Ph.D. student at the University of North Carolina Charlotte, conducted a study last year on development along the Blue Line corridor. Her research, which she planned on presenting at the American Planning Association’s national convention in late April, found that along most of the line “it’s more T (transportation) than TOD (transportation-oriented development).”

Currie explained that the basic goal of TOD is to put homes, retail, services and jobs close to transit stops so that people won’t need to depend on a car. She found the average density along the Blue Line was 3.67 housing units per acre, far short of the recommended TOD densities of 9-12 units per acre for rail.

Regardless of which numbers and formulas are used – and who’s trying to promote them -- the impact of light rail on development can’t be denied. Even Hartgen’s study allowed for substantial value added by light rail to development.  

Steve Harris, a developer and lifelong Charlottean, jumped in early on the Blue Line with plans to build more than 2,500 homes near the Arrowood Road and I-485 stations. He was quoted in the Charlotte Business Journal as saying, “If there are people who think that mass transit is not the way to go, then they’ve got their heads in the sand.” Harris didn’t respond to a call for comment for this report. 

All eyes on Denver

Funding for transit projects has never been more challenging and contentious on the heels of the Great Recession. The protracted Gold Line fight could be a sign of what’s to come as Gov. Pat McCrory and his transit funding working group have determined that the old formula of a one-half cent sales tax, fare revenue and local/state/federal funding aren’t realistic anymore – especially in the face of an estimated $5 billion funding gap for transit projects. McCrory is expected to provide more on creative alternatives this summer.

Charlotte City Councilmember David Howard and Huntersville Mayor Jill Swain, co-chairs of McCrory’s group who also didn’t respond to requests for comment for this report, have investigated the value of public-private partnerships (P3s). Charlotte hosted a P3 summit in March. Other funding possibilities include dedicated tax districts and a combination of grants and revenue-backed financing plans.

The transit funding group is closely watching recent successes in other big cities. “Houston and Denver have figured it out,” Binns says. “It all comes down to how willing we are to do things differently than we’ve done them in the past.

“That is often a challenge here in Charlotte. We’re very much a city that doesn’t want to be the first to try anything. We like to be about the tenth. I’ve heard cities that pride themselves on that, that they can learn from others’ mistakes. But I think that can be to our detriment.”

Next month, Denver will unveil its revamped Union Station transit hub – a 22-bay underground bus station. The city is being hailed for its creative financing methods that feature loans from the Federal Railroad Administration’s Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing Program (RRIF), and the Transportation Department’s Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA). Denver is to repay $301 million in loans through property tax gains from the blocks near the hub.

One dollar of TIFIA financing leverages $30 in private or other public sector funding. (The Charlotte transit funding work group is familiar with TIFIA; last year it suggested using the plan to start construction quickly on the streetcar.)

RRIF can provide up to $35 billion in loans and loan guarantees to finance development of railroad infrastructure. But it doesn’t just benefit railroads. Some of that money is going to transit projects.

The number of RRIF loans or TIFIA loans that actually go to transit projects are “infinitesimal compared to the overall pot of money,” says Steve Reed, spokesman for Denver’s regional transportation district. “It’s a lesser-known mechanism. It’s kind of like, there are mechanisms that allow flexing of highway funds to transit, but that’s done so rarely that people don’t usually think about that.”

He says P3s “have been a tremendous help for us as well. When we were at the depths of the Great Recession, we were able to put together three different transit projects as one project and then put that out to bid to the private sector. We ended up with what we called the Eagle P3,” a private-public commuter rail project in which a private company is responsible for designing, building, partially financing, operating and maintaining two commuter rail corridors; a maintenance facility for commuter rail equipment; and a five-mile segment of a Northwest corridor line.

Reed sees comparisons between Denver and Charlotte. “We were and will, long term, still be in the same boat as Charlotte as with having a substantially unmet transportation need in a rapidly growing area.” He adds that in funding for such projects “There is not a one-size-fits-all scenario. But there are a lot of nontraditional financing mechanisms … that can be cobbled together.”

Gold perceptions, Red flag 

Binns says transit projects are often road-blocked by misconceptions, and that the Gold Line is a prime example.

“Public and media opposition to the Gold Line has shown a lack of understanding of transit systems and transit technologies,” he says. “Saying it has to be light rail or nothing doesn’t take into account not only the limitations because of how we’ve developed the city and the lack of tracks, but that light rail is very expensive compared to streetcars.” With light rail, “there’s a real cost to that in terms of taking over private property to build it, and ultimately in terms of the investment required to build it.”

He also says a lot of people don’t understand the Gold Line’s important function in the overall transit package: It’s “sort of a linchpin of the system in the sense that the Gold Line connects the Red Line to the Blue line through downtown.

“So if you ride the Red Line in from north of Charlotte and you want to go to another part of Charlotte, you either have to get on the Blue Line or the Gold Line. You can’t get on the Blue Line from the Red Line without getting on the Gold Line. … Without the Gold Line, you have the Red Line terminating here and the Blue Line terminating here, several blocks apart.”

This assumes there will someday be a Red Line – a distant reality at the moment. The 30-mile commuter line from Charlotte to Mooresville, with a most recent cost estimate of $660 million, is another key rail component in the long-term vision. For that 2030 bicycle to ride smoothly and at top efficiency, all spokes in the wheels have to be intact and functioning. 

The Red Line spoke is missing. In January 2012, I covered a breakfast that invited local officials to discuss the project. The gathering at Cornelius’ Peninsula Yacht Club alternated between giddiness over related development possibilities; concerns about the project’s cost; and confusion as to why no one was there from Norfolk Southern -- owner of the tracks on which the rail would run.

Little, if any, progress has been made. A Norfolk Southern official ripped the plan for being flawed from an operating, financial and regulatory standpoint. As of two years ago, financing would come from the state of North Carolina and CATS. The rest would be generated through a special tax district, a new joint powers authority to oversee the line and an increase in freight traffic to bring more revenue.

Nine governmental groups -- Mecklenburg and Iredell counties; Huntersville; Cornelius; Davidson; Mooresville; Charlotte; the N.C. Department of Transportation, and CATS -- have to approve plans before construction can begin. Iredell has been a longtime critic of the proposal, questioning the price tag with its inevitable cost overruns and who’ll pay for it.

Iredell commissioner Renee C. Griffith told me in September 2011 that "Never in the history of Iredell County will so many be taxed so heavily to benefit so few." 

Are cars still the way?

The transit plan’s major obstacles and opposition to key projects such as the Red Line create significant doubt as to whether it will be complete by 2030. Transit funding group co-chair and City Council member David Howard has been quoted as saying that "if we don't do something different, this 2030 or 2035 plan is going to be more like a 2080 plan.”

Binns says: “Anything is possible, but we’ll have to get creative and make this a much higher priority than we have.” He agrees that the longtime federal-state-local funding and the sales tax aren’t sufficient anymore. “The costs are too high, the appetite for taxes too low.”

Such concerns invite the question: Can Charlotte ever become a mass-transit hub – and is that a desirable result?

Hartgen says no and no. First, he says, “Ridership is not likely to grow unless the downtown employment substantially increases. You need to understand here that nobody who’s actually living downtown actually uses this.

“The primary market is for folks living outside of town who want to work downtown, and most of them do not live close enough to the South Boulevard corridor to use it. Same with the University people who work downtown.”

He agrees with Binns on this much: “It really comes down to convenience.

“Even if we had light rail lines everywhere … we couldn’t make them fast enough to compete with private cars for most trips. I live up in Cabarrus County. 85 was just widened. That’s the end of congestion in Cabarrus County for the next 25 years. Cabarrus County folks now have a straight shot to downtown Charlotte, with almost no congestion unless there’s an accident. So that problem has basically been solved.

“The problem on Independence Boulevard is being solved. The travel times from Monroe are less now than they were 10 years ago. Travel times are less in Gastonia; they’ve got an eight-lane loop that’s being completed around the city.”

He says roads will be able handle the region’s projected doubling in population over the next 20 years because “it’s going to occur on the edges of the region, where there’s more than sufficient highway capacity already.

“There is no other way to deal with a 100 percent increase in population than to increase highway capacity. Write it down.”

Dave Gilroy, a Cornelius town commissioner, goes so far as to say light rail technology is outdated – that transit planning is being done with little or no regard to the eventual arrival of driverless cars. Depending on what you hear or read, these could be on public highways within a decade, maybe two. California is pushing to finish its driverless car laws by 2015.

Noting that 90 percent of accidents are caused by human error, advocates for driverless or autonomous cars say they’ll increase safety dramatically. The cars will be able to sense vehicles and people nearby; communicate with each other; learn real-time traffic information almost instantly; and even call for help in emergencies. 

Driverless cars also would theoretically increase traffic efficiency -- the premise being that as they become more adept at handling all traffic situations speed limits may be raised, thereby shortening commutes. And these safer cars would be able to drive just feet from each other, quadrupling highway capacity and making it easier for municipalities to plan and pay for road infrastructure.

“I think people don’t realize what’s going on with technology,” Gilroy says. “I think the world is going to be transformed by driverless cars, though I think we are talking about a 15-20-year timeline in the most conservative case with mass adoption” – which, ironically, is about the same time peg as Charlotte’s master transit plan.

“It’s going to be the biggest change in our culture, not just transportation but the very way we live. It’s going to mean a lot less cars. You’ll be able to use public or community cars, so there won’t be a need for two cars for every family in every garage.”

Hartgen agrees, saying “we’re way behind the curve” on driverless cars. Responds Binns: “The amount of road area that driverless cars would require would still be considerably more than mass transit.” And experts agree the cars face significant hurdles ranging from legislation to legal issues.

Mass transit momentum

Popular sentiment still seems to favor mass transit over cars, simply via the growing number of cities that seek to fund and build these projects. Driving continues to take a hit in studies such as the one conducted by U.S. PIRG and Frontier Group, which said the driving boom that started after World War II is over. (U.S. PIRG conducts research and public education on behalf of consumers and the public interest; Frontier Group is a self-described think tank that promotes a cleaner environment.)

The 2013 report says that although per-capita driving is as low as it was in 1996, plans for expanded roads and highways continue. The decline in driving is supported by recent studies on the growing number of millennials or Generation Y (ages 18 to 37), who tend to favor urban lifestyles that include transit, walking and biking. Totaling 86 million, they’re 7 percent bigger than the baby boom generation (1946-64). 

Although the current number of hurdles could well delay completion of the mass transit master plan, the time, expense and political capital invested are all factors in its favor. Allies in Washington include former Charlotte Mayor and current U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, and N.C. governor and former Charlotte mayor Pat McCrory, who helped lead the Blue Line effort. The growing population in outlying areas is there. The beginnings of the rail commitment are in place.

“We have really dedicated leaders who understand what the need for us is,” Binns says, “though there is some Republican opposition. For the most part, though, in the city of Charlotte, the issue isn’t driven by politics. I think that’s less true when you get farther away from the city.”

Regarding the corruption charges that led to the recent resignation of former mayor Patrick Cannon – including an affidavit from the investigation that said Cannon suggested to an undercover agent his access to the White House and Congress could secure grants for the streetcar project – Binns is confident that won’t affect the future of the Gold Line or mass transit in Charlotte.

“The fact of the matter is, his arm had to be twisted” to support the streetcar, Binns says. “He supported it very reluctantly. And then the discussions he allegedly had happened later, not before.”

Cannon’s successor, Dan Clodfelter, says he was a big supporter of the streetcar project. Regarding mass transit and transportation funding options, he says he’s in favor of counties and cities pooling together in a regional funding mechanism. But he says he won’t run for another term, so it’s questionable how much he’ll be able to accomplish in this arena in a short time given the back-to-the-drawing board state it’s in now.

Regardless of who’s this year’s Charlotte mayor, the long-held assumption that mass transit means less road congestion and pollution always resonates with many. This despite a report by Hartgen that says only about 25 percent of Lynx weekday ridership is diverted directly from cars, and that with the Blue Line “the big winners are about 4,000 prior bus riders, 4,000 commuters living close to the line, and 400 South Carolina drivers."

Wes Seeger -- among those who don’t live close to the line -- likes what he’s seen of mass transit in other cities and says it should be a priority here.

“If Charlotte had a plan to include a wider-reaching Blue Line train, better and more convenient bus stops, and a Metra style of train such as Huntersville-Davidson to the city and Fort Mill-Rock Hill to Charlotte, I think it would be a great selling point -- especially so as the city tries to attract more diversified industry and companies to relocate.”

That’s just the kind of excitement many local and state leaders want to hear as they contemplate the many unknown stops ahead.

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  • Jay Privette
    commented 2015-08-22 07:55:19 -0400
    No mention of the very high cost of rail transit. The Blue Line – over $20 per rider. The Blue Line extension – perhaps over $70 per rider. The proposed Red Line – it would be cheaper to buy every commuter that could use it a new Prius every three years, and greener to boot. All to subsidize mostly white collar workers that can afford to pay for their own transportation. How is Charlotte paying for expensive rail service. By cutting back on bus service that serves mostly poor neighborhoods and raising bus fares making buses less affordable for the poor. One report from Randal O’Toole of the Cato Institute (he knows where to look) says for every new rider on the Blue Line, Charlotte has lost 17 bus riders. The best way to get out of poverty is with a job. The poor can’t get a job without a reliable way to get to a job. Is it any wonder why Charlotte was ranked dead last in upward mobility among major metropolitan regions?