Charlotte Light Rail

Charlotte’s Northeast Corridor Light Rail Line Underfunded, Likely to be Shortened

» Extension of the city’s successful first rail transit line, now years behind schedule, is to be further delayed.

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

Atlanta Charlotte Elections Houston Miami New York Seattle

Mayoral Elections Highlight Controversies Over Transit Provision

» Third in a series of three articles on today’s elections. The first considered governor’s races; the second reviewed ballot measures.

In six big cities across the country — Atlanta, Charlotte, Houston, Miami, New York, and Seattle — transportation is playing a role in the mayoral race being decided today. With the economic crisis front and center, however, transit isn’t anyone’s biggest priority.

Mayor of Atlanta, GA

Update: Mary Norwood, with 46%, and Kasim Reed, with 36%, have moved on to a runoff on December 1st.

Atlanta’s dramatic growth over the past twenty years — it has increased in population from 394,000 in 1990 to an estimated 538,000 today — has brought with it a panoply of benefits, including increased density and better services. Much of the population increase has been due to an increase in the number of white people, who now make up 38% of the population, compared to 31% just nine years ago. Those changes are producing a vastly different political environment, one in which a white candidate may take office for the first time since 1973.

Mayor Shirley Franklin, who has served since 2001, was a relatively competent manager of the city’s finances and livability, pushing proposals like the Beltline and Peachtree Corridor streetcar. But during her time, the city has suffered from a spike in crime, coming in opposition to the experience of other major U.S. cities, which have seen steady declines. That issue is tops in today’s mayoral race, though transportation proposals are also getting their day in the sun.

Current polls put white candidate Mary Norwood, currently a city counselor, on top. She has been strident in her statements against crime, and she has convincingly pulled off a characterization of herself as an “outsider” — good for a city sick of eight years of the same person. But she is facing strong competition from State Senator Kasim Reed and City Council President Lisa Borders, as well as three other candidates. If no one person wins a majority of votes, there will be a runoff on December 1st.

In a series of candidate forums, the three front-runners have made their positions known on transit issues, and Ms. Norwood doesn’t seem as appealing as her poll numbers suggest. Unlike the other two candidates, Norwood lives in a huge house in an unwalkable part of the city, whereas Ms. Borders has a residence downtown. Mr. Reed is a frequent user of the city’s MARTA rapid transit network, while Ms. Norwood appears to use it simply to get to the airport.

On their websites, both Ms. Borders and Mr. Reed highlight their respective records on transportation, which Ms. Norwood fails to do. As a state senator, Mr. Reed has been pushing for a new revenue source for transit, something the state has to approve before the city can implement it. Ms. Borders, meanwhile, has suggested that she would continue the Franklin legacy of encouraging investment in the Beltline, though at the candidate forum, she admitted that “it’s not going to be soon” — a response that shows either a taste for the realistic or a lack of ambition, depending on one’s perspective.

Unfortunately, none of the candidates has made a strong claim to being the supporter of transit; while Ms. Norwood’s lackluster responses on the subject knock her down a few points, her opponents aren’t much better. No one’s proposing the sort of long-range plan Atlanta needs. Nor is it clear that any of the candidates understand how and why transit should be implemented. Disappointing for such a promising city.

Mayor of Charlotte, NC

Update: Anthony Foxx, with 51% of the vote, has won the mayor’s race in Charlotte; the first for Democrats in 22 years; Democrats also take huge majority on City Council

Mayor Pat McCrory, who made a name for himself as a Republican in favor of transit, has spent the last fourteen years in Charlotte’s City Hall, but he declined to run for reelection this year after loosing last year’s governor’s race to Democrat Beverly Perdue. Attempting to take his place are contenders Anthony Foxx, a Democrat, and John Lassiter, a Republican; both are currently city council members.

Though Charlotte once had some of the country’s biggest transit ambitions, with five separate rail lines planned, it was humbled by the financial crisis and the sudden decrease in sales tax revenue that hit virtually every municipality. The city is planning a streetcar to run through the downtown area and some of inner-city neighborhoods, and it has already put some tracks in place. Yet with no money on tap, the project is on hold — and that’s where the mayoral race became interesting.

Whereas Mr. Foxx voted in favor of allocating funds for studying the streetcar’s alignment and conducting some preliminary engineering, Mr. Lassiter voted against those studies, arguing that it was a waste of money to plan for a project that would not get built. Mr. Foxx continues to uphold his vote, arguing that the research was necessary to evaluate what the city could or could not build.

All that said, Mr. Lassiter remains a supporter of light rail expansion, though it is unclear whether he would suggest implementing a new revenue source to pay for its construction. Mr. Foxx seems more clear in his unambiguous interest in such investments.

Mayor of Houston, TX

Update: Annise Parker, with 30.5%, and Gene Locke, with 25.9%, have moved on to the runoff December 12th.

Of all of the races today, Houston’s may be the one where voters have no real possibility of going wrong when it comes to transportation issues. All three of the front-runners, including City Controller Annise Parker, Former City Attorney Gene Locke, and City Planner/Architect Peter Brown, are seriously in favor of transit investment. This marks quite a shift for a city that for almost a decade was unable to receive any federal funding for new rail lines because of the intervention of Congressman Tom Delay (R).

Yet times have changed. The city’s citizenry sees current Mayor Bill White as having had a successful career at City Hall, and that’s especially true for his work on light rail, which has been moved forward dramatically in the last few months, with approval from the Federal Transit Administration for the construction of two new lines. Houston’s single rail line has the highest ridership per route mile of any such system in the country.

This consensus, which generally includes an acknowledgment that transportation only functions effectively when growth is appropriately planned around stations, suggests a promising next four years for this fast-growing city.

Mayor of Miami, FL

Update: Tomás Regalado, with 72% of the vote, cruises to easy win over Joe Sanchez.

With Mayor Manny Diaz being forced out of office after eight years because of term limits, Miami voters will choose between Joe Sanchez, a supporter of Mr. Diaz’s work, and Tomás Regalado, who has been a regular opponent of the current mayor’s philosophy on development.

Both candidates are members of the City Commission, and they’ve had very different voting records. Whereas Mr. Sanchez has come out wholeheartedly in favor of Mr. Diaz’s big development schemes, including a new tunnel to the port, a new baseball stadium, and a big condo building boom, Mr. Regalado has been a proponent of improving conditions in the city’s neighborhoods. That position, which has favored the majority of Miami residents who do not live in the areas affected by recent development trends, has given Mr. Regalado a serious lead in the polls. That probably means no major investments in transit over the next four years.

That’s because while Mr. Sanchez sees public transit as a core element of developing the future city, Mr. Regalado is more interested in fiscal austerity — despite the fact that Mr. Diaz, even with all his promotion of big new projects, shored up the city’s finances dramatically during his time in office. That stance means that Mr. Regalado will probably do little to improve the conditions of the city’s Metrorail network, which is already cashless.

Nor will Mr. Regalado stand firm in promoting more pedestrian-oriented spaces. In the vote on Miami 21, a strong decision about making the city a more walkable, livable place, he placed himself in the opposition. Mr. Sanchez was in favor. Mr. Regalado’s insistence that the city go “back to basics” ultimately means he won’t do much to help it improve.

Mayor of New York City, NY

Update: Defying all odds, Bill Thompson gets 46% of the vote, despite being outspent 14 to 1 and having been left for dead by basically the entire Democratic establishment. Michael Bloomberg, however, moves in for his third term as mayor.

New York may be the only city in the country where the Republican-endorsed candidate has a significantly more pro-transit platform than the Democrat. In many ways, that’s terrible, because Independent-former-but-maybe-still-Republican billionaire Michael Bloomberg has basically bought himself the next four years, spending $35,000 an hour to do so throughout the campaign. All this after forcing the city council to alter its term limit rules to allow him to run for a third term. Democratic opponent Bill Thompson has had no chance.

Perhaps that’s why, despite his reasonable record as City Controller, Mr. Thompson has staked himself as the anti-Bloomberg on livability issues such as bike lanes, bus rapid transit, and pedestrian plazas. While Mr. Bloomberg has given his chief of Transportation Janette Sadik-Kahn basically full reign in implementing an excellent streets reform project, Mr. Thompson has held rallies decrying BRT on some of the city’s most-trafficked corridors. Maybe he sees that as the only way to get votes. If so, it says something terrible about New York’s citizenry. If not, Mr. Thompson’s priorities are woefully misguided.

Mr. Bloomberg, meanwhile, for all his investment in nice streetscapes, has reduced the city’s commitment to sponsoring the state-run MTA, which runs the Subway system. His claims that he’ll invest in a new streetcar along the Brooklyn and Queens waterfront seem exaggerated, especially when he can’t seem to get off his obsession with the less-than-useful extension of the 7 Subway into West Midtown.

It’s not a particularly good day for transportation advocates in America’s biggest transit city. Here’s to a better choice in four years…

Mayor of Seattle, WA

Update: In early results, Mike McGinn has a 910-vote lead over his opponent; with a large number of votes yet to be counted, the lead could switch hands. However, pro-transit Dow Constantine wins big over conservative Susan Hutchinson in the King County Executive race, with 57% of the vote.

In this runoff race, it’s quite clear who thinks what. In the first round, incumbent Mayor Greg Nickels found himself cornered from the left (environmentalist Mike McGinn) and from the right (businessman Joe Mallahan) and he dropped to last in a three-way race. If some transit proponents were disappointed — Mr. Nickels had staked his legacy on transportation investments — Mr. McGinn is attempting to pick up the mantle today, though with a spin.

Mr. McGinn’s primary campaign was mostly premised on his opposition to the construction of a full-bore tunnel under downtown Seattle to replace the moribund Alaskan Way Viaduct, which sits on the waterfront. Unlike Mr. Nickels, who promoted the project, the candidate suggested simply replacing the Viaduct with a surface level road and using the remaining funds for better transit. Mr. Mallahan found himself rigorously opposed to that position; he’s made himself into the candidate of the drivers, so to speak.

Nonetheless, the Viaduct has become a bit of a non-issue in the meantime because of the fact that state financing has come through and the city has approved work, making its completion a virtual certainly. But there are still major transportation issues to be resolved in the Puget Sound. Will light rail run on I-90 or SR520? Will there be a streetcar network? Will there be a West Seattle line?

Mr. McGinn, a staunch defender of transit, is the right man for this job. Mr. Mallahan’s car-driving mentality won’t privilege the kind of long-term investments Seattle needs.

Charlotte Finance North Carolina

Charlotte Business Taskforce Decides that Roads – Not Transit – Deserve More Funding

The North Carolina city, already incapable of funding its long-term transit plan, will likely not see more revenues dedicated to public transportation

The influential Committee of 21, a sort of local Rotary Club for discussing transportation issues in the Charlotte area, told the city council yesterday that any new transportation funding in the region should be dedicated to roads, not transit. Ned Curran, chair of the committee, said “I don’t want to be anti-transitMy company supported (the transit sales tax). We were against repeal, both with our voice and with our money. But where are we going to get money for roads?”  The committee’s statements reflect the mood of the city’s business community and may portend a less-than-ideal future for mass transit in North Carolina’s biggest city.

The argument goes something like this: Charlotte approved a 1/2¢ sales tax for transit back in 1998, and the business community helped work successfully against a repeal vote in 2007. Now, though, whatever the needs of the transit system, roads need to be better funded, because the region’s highways are not keeping up with demand. The development community – focused mostly on building single-family houses and office parks entirely designed for the auto-dependent – is adamant in its push for more roads.

Mayor Pat McCrory, who is retiring this year after seven terms as a tireless proponent of transit in the city, seems to concur, arguing that he wouldn’t support a new half-cent sales tax for transit. This is in spite of the fact that the recession has caused tax revenues to drop precipitously; the transit agency will not be able to complete all of the lines initially planned for the system. North Carolina’s State House recently approved a measure that would allow other regions in the state to raise their taxes for transit to Charlotte’s levels, but did not leave room for Charlotte to increase its revenues any more.

The committee’s proposal for a new half-cent sales tax for road construction is antithetical to the idea that Charlotte can reinvent itself into a compact, transit-oriented, and walkable city – a goal for which the city’s planners have been working since 1998. It also ignores the basic fact that the state gets hundreds of millions of dollars every year from the federal government specifically for new roads construction. In order for the city to qualify for federal transit New Start matching grants for new light rail or busway construction, on the other hand, the city must contribute a significant share of the costs, not true for roads. The argument in favor of increasing roads funding also ignores the fact that the city systematically underfunded public transportation for decades while investing heavily in roads throughout; doesn’t transit deserve to represent at least half of transportation costs now? Adding a new tax for roads – in addition to a vehicle registration fee and tolls also proposed by the committee to go towards highways – would tilt the balance back towards automobiles disastrously.

Who is represented on the Committee of 21? The chair, Mr. Curran, just happens to be the head of The Bissell Companies, a real estate group whose investments have been – surprise, surprise – primarily in car-oriented offices, hotels, and golf clubs. Why might he have an interest in promoting more roads? Though several of the other members include people who have offices in Uptown Charlotte (one or two also live at least near downtown), the fact remains that this is a business group organized by the Charlotte Chamber that represents people who are for the most part completely wedded to their cars and who, unsurprisingly, want more highways. To think that this group, which has so much influence over decisions made by the very business-oriented Charlotte city council, will come out against more transit funding, saddens me because it indicates that the advances made so far by this southern city may be ephemeral.

That said, no decisions have yet been made, and there’s little guarantee that the Committee of 21’s suggested 1/2¢ sales tax for roads will gain any traction – especially since it would need approval from the state legislature to go anywhere. But the seeming lack of local political support for a financial lift-up for the transit system is depressing. Looks like Charlotte really will have to decide between two competing transit proposals, because it’s certainly not going to be able to afford both at this rate…

Charlotte Finance

Charlotte Continues Fight Over Transit Funding

Charlotte excluded from North Carolina Legislature’s bill allowing for increased sales taxes

Because of the economic crisis, Charlotte has been losing tax revenue for its transit system, which is dependent on a half-cent sales tax to maintain operations and construct new lines. CATS, the city’s transit agency, now predicts a $242 252 million shortfall over the next fifteen ten years, forcing it to make hard decisions about what lines to build and which to cut. But now there’s talk in the North Carolina Legislature of allowing further sales tax increases in counties around the state to pay for transit – with the exception of Mecklenburg County, that is, Charlotte and its suburbs, which want to add another 1/2 cent sales tax to their existing taxes.

If the state agrees to the law, counties will be able to propose referendums to their citizenry; if a majority agree, counties can increase their local sales taxes by a 1/2 cent. This measure is most likely to help the Triangle area, including the cities of Durham and Raleigh, which have been desperately pushing for a stable funding source for transit and which have been hoping – yet not finding the means to pay – for a rail transit system over the last twenty years.

But State Representative Dan Clodfelter, who represents a part of Charlotte and chairs the Senate Finance Committee, won’t agree to allowing Mecklenburg to increase taxes on itself unless the city agrees to prioritize a light rail line to the southeast section of the city and a streetcar through Uptown, two areas he represents directly. The transit system’s current plans prioritize an extension of the existing south light rail line to the northeast and the construction of a new north commuter rail line to a number of small towns. Mr. Clodfelter is keeping the city hostage unless he gets what he wants built.

Obviously, the transit system, run by a board representing all of the county’s towns, not just Charlotte, will not agree to such a bait-and-switch, and Mr. Clodfelter’s actions may ultimately put the whole system in danger by depriving it of the funds it needs. The problem with the state system, in which localities have limited power to decide if and when to tax themselves and must get approval from the state to get anything done, is just this: powerful members of the state assemblies, thinking they’re acting on behalf of those that elected them, actually end up causing trouble by making a controversy into an epic battle.

Mr. Clodfelter should recognize that he doens’t have to blackmail the city to get what he wants; if he allowed the county to increase its sales tax by another 1/2 cent without saying a word, the transit system would have enough money to ensure that his priorities, already in the planning stage and marked for construction, get built.

Charlotte Streetcar

Charlotte Envisions New Streetcar – But Needs More Revenue

Center City Streetcar cannot be fully supported by existing 1/2¢ sales taxCharlotte Streetcar Map

As discussed last week on the transport politic, Charlotte’s sales tax revenue for transit isn’t providing enough revenue to ensure the timely completion of the city’s ambitious 2030 plan for five rapid transit corridors around the city. To make matters worse, the city’s drop in tax receipts is forcing the transit agency (CATS) to cut service on its very popular new Blue Line light rail corridor, which opened in 2007. And yet, some members of the city council, as well as many of the city’s citizens, are pushing for the construction of the center city streetcar component of the plan, which had previously been delayed. In order for the streetcar to enter into operations, though, the city would have to find hundreds of millions of dollars from some as-of-now unknown source.

The city’s streetcar project would run roughly north-south, from Beatties Ford road, through “Uptown” along Trade Street, and along Central Avenue to Eastland Mall. The city’s downtown has grown quickly in recent years with the rise of the city’s two major banks, Bank of America and Wachovia (which has now been absorbed by Wells Fargo), but the other areas to be served by the 10-mile route are relatively poor. The service would therefore not only provide access to the city’s dynamic growth engine, but also to some of the city’s most mobility-deprived individuals.

The project’s costs have risen to about $372 million, an amount that could be covered by the sales tax – but only by 2018 for the first phase and 2023 for the complete corridor. Neighborhood groups and the downtown steering group, however, want to see its completion pushed forward to 2013. The fact that the city is currently laying streetcar tracks along part of the route anyway (as part of a streetscaping project) only adds to the pressure to get things moving.

So the city has developed the idea of creating a transit-oriented district that would allow some property taxes from homes and businesses along the line to be diverted to paying for the streetcar. This would work similarly to the tax allocation district Atlanta is currently using to pay for its signature Beltline project. Yet even those extra property taxes – derived from increasing growth along the line – would only cover 20 to 30 percent of the total line’s cost.

What to do, then, in a city like Charlotte that wants to build more transit lines but that cannot find the revenue to sponsor them?

One possible source of revenue could be the stimulus plan, which will probably increase the funds available to the New Starts and Small Starts programs, which could theoretically support such a project. But Charlotte’s engineering on the proposal probably isn’t advanced enough to merit the “ready-to-build” designation that is supposed to be met by projects being funded by the stimulus money. Nor can Charlotte easily divert money from the other proposed transit projects in the city: a northeastern extension of the light rail line and a northern commuter rail line. Mayor Pat McCrory addressed the problem in the Charlotte Business Journal:

“I’m a little nervous about segregating one project within just the city when it still says ‘CATS’ on it. I don’t have an answer, I’m just stating the issue at hand.”

The fundamental problem for the city is that the governing board of CATS is the regionwide MTC, with representatives from Charlotte, but also from Mecklenburg County and the four relatively tiny surrounding towns neighboring Charlotte. The vast majority of sales tax revenues for the system come from the big city, and rightfully, the vast majority of transit service also goes to the big city. But in choosing how to expand the transit system, the board’s large representation by small towns means that good projects in Charlotte alone – such as this streetcar – are pushed back in favor of arguably less valuable projects that serve the small towns, such as that northern commuter rail line just mentioned.

Charlotte, then, finds itself in a bit of a bind, unable to control the use of its own sales tax revenue, having to prioritize the region’s needs over the more pressing demands of the inner city. Charlotte’s experience serves as a lesson for other cities: it created a regional coalition to sponsor the growth of a new transit network, hoping to attract state and county money more easily, something that it has done relatively successfully. In the process, though, the city has had to sacrifice its priorities. Was it worth it?

Image above: Charlotte Streetcar Plan, from CATS Rapid Transit 2030 Plan