Just weeks before the opening of their first light rail line in November 2007, Charlotte’s voters affirmed their commitment to the city’s transit expansion, voting by a large margin to continue the collection of a dedicated half-cent sales tax first approved in 1998. Their endorsement of the city’s public transportation was founded on the sense that Charlotte’s growth needed to be reconfigured around walkability and transit use. One place everyone in this New South city did not want to imitate was Atlanta, whose unchecked sprawl is not particularly appealing.
The 10-mile South light rail line, from Center City to I-485 via the South End, has seen ridership shoot far above initial expectations. And the city’s bus system has seen ridership double since 2000, from 34,000 daily riders to 77,000.
CATS, the city’s transit system, laid out a plan in 2006 (furthering a proposal from 1998) to extend the reach of the rapid transit network with five new lines radiating from downtown in the form of light rail, commuter rail, bus rapid transit, and streetcars. Most promising was the 11-mile Northeast line, which would extend the existing light rail corridor by 2013 from downtown past the University of North Carolina at Charlotte to I-485 and attract almost 20,000 riders a day by 2030.
Yet the effects of the recession have been particularly difficult for Charlotte, which endured not only the loss of tax revenues common in every American city, but which also had its primary employer, Wachovia Bank, get bought up by San Francisco-based Wells Fargo. By early 2009, it was clear that the ambitions behind the plans just three years before were way out of reach — the Northeast Corridor, now the only project advancing much at all, would be delayed to 2019. A streetcar line planned for downtown would have to be sponsored by the city if it were to be built.
Now that the effects of the poor economy have settled in, the future of the city’s transit network is in doubt: The Northeast corridor’s full reach could be shrunk to just four or five miles in face of declining funds, with the rest delayed virtually indefinitely.
The biggest problem is that Charlotte’s tax revenues haven’t kept up with expectations. CATS will receive $60 million in returns this year, about the same as was collected five years ago. Much like Dallas and Denver, the city estimated large increases in revenue when it planned the construction of its transit network, but it now has hardly enough to maintain its bus system.
At a cost of $1.14 billion, the Northeast corridor would be more than twice as expensive as the city’s first light rail line, far too much for CATS to afford even though it is planning to contribute only a quarter of the project’s construction costs, with the federal government likely to make a commitment for half and the State of North Carolina pitching in 25%. When originally discussed, the project was supposed to cost $741 million. Thus the announcement that the program’s length will be substantially cut to a $350-400 million segment from Center City to Sugar Creek Road, just four miles northeast of downtown.
For the sake of the system’s ridership potential, this could cause major difficulties. Unlike the South corridor, which ran through a wealthy area that was already undergoing densification, the first few miles of the Northeast line don’t reach much, with the exception of the still-small NoDa arts district in the environs of 36th Street. The big ridership generator — the university north of town — would be left for a future phase.
The city’s planners note that the Sugar Creek station would be the first on the Northeast line with a park and ride, so commuters coming in from the northern suburbs could park there before heading into downtown. The South corridor has seen significant ridership at its southernmost I-485 station, where virtually all users come by car. Yet that stop is located directly adjacent to an interstate highway, not true of the planned Sugar Creek station; how many drivers will go out of their way to park their car and then travel by train just four miles into downtown? Only when the line extends all the way to the northern limits of the city, at the other side of the circumferential I-485 road, will the Northeast corridor be able to attract a significant number of people who are driving.
Nonetheless, there’s not much else that Charlotte can do. With few funds for network expansion, it may be useful to invest in a short extension of the existing line if that’s all the city can afford. For the long-term, however, this region may need to find a new source of transportation funds if it wants to get anything big done.
Update, 26 May: Olaf Kinard, CATS Director of Marketing and Communications wrote me with the following comment:
“CATS has not announced nor has any plans to phase in the Northeast Corridor. If you are referencing your story on The Charlotte Observer article, they took liberties with a hypothetical questions they posed about the technical ability of where the closest stop would be in which the line could open up. CATS did not announce any change in our plans to build out the entire Northeast line to the end of the line. You also mentioned that CATS had estimated large increases in sales tax which is the cause of a funding issues. This is not the case. Financial projections of future sales tax revenues were based on average rates of increases. The issue that all transit systems and businesses are faced with is that the recession caused a significant drop in the revenues and thus a new base from which to grow from. CATS is currently pulling in sales tax revenue at a level equivalent to the 2004/ 2005 annual level. Projecting that new base out 10 years at a conservative rate of increase of approximately 3% creates a $350 million difference from the 2006 projects during the same time. This issue is caused by the new lower based caused by the recession not the cost of the projects.”
Image above: Charlotte Northeast Corridor Rail map, from CATS