Charlotte is bullish on mass transit

Charlotte is bullish on mass transit

- in Weekly Briefing

Could its success represent a “tipping point” for North Carolina?

A few years back, writer Malcolm Gladwell wrote a popular book called “The Tipping Point.” In it, he explored several different societal examples in which small changes on a small scale have accumulated and coalesced until, like a health epidemic, they reached a “tipping point” and suddenly spread explosively throughout a community. Some of Gladwell’s examples are bad (the AIDS virus, teen suicides), while others (the decline of crime in New York City, literacy amongst children who watch “Sesame Street”) are good.

One potential candidate for “tipping point” status in North Carolina today (the good kind) could be public transit. After years of delay and half-measures, there are signs that a critical mass of elected officials, business leaders, environmental advocates and the public at-large is beginning to come together around the idea of moving beyond North Carolina’s tired old transportation formula of roads, roads and more roads.  

Study committee meeting provides new momentum

The latest and best example of the new esprit de corps infecting the transit movement occurred last Wednesday when, after several weeks of talking about 20th Century ideas like highway loops and toll roads, North Carolina’s 21st Century Transportation Committee finally devoted some time to mass transit. The occasion was a meeting in Charlotte and the star of the show was the Queen City’s rapidly developing public transit system, CATS.

Committee members and other attendees were treated to an extremely impressive presentation by Keith Parker, CEO of the CATS system, along with a combination bus and light rail tour of the Charlotte system. Click here to watch Parker’s PowerPoint presentation.

Parker’s talk came on the heels of welcoming comments from Charlotte mayor and newly announced Republican gubernatorial candidate, Pat McCrory. McCrory made Charlotte’s mass transit successes the centerpiece of his brief talk and, in a somewhat surprising move for a conservative statewide candidate, talked about a recent trip to several European cities in which he learned from experts about their transportation successes.  

The group was also treated to the surprisingly strong words of former state legislator and Transportation Secretary, Sam Hunt. Hunt, as most of those who have followed North Carolina politics over the past couple of decades are well aware, is a conservative, pro-business Democrat from Alamance County who is, in many ways, the embodiment of traditional transportation politics. Even Hunt, however, had nothing but words of support for Charlotte’s progress and the need for more state investment in mass transit. In delivering the report of “Intermodal” Subcommittee he chairs, Hunt called on Committee members to endorse at least $1.2 billion in new state funding for public transit. “Now is the time” he said, for the state to act.

The source of the excitement  

It’s not hard to understand why the Charlotte experiment seems to be changing hearts and minds on transit. Despite limited and uncertain state and federal funding, local officials appear to have effected a remarkable overhaul and expansion of the system. What once was the quintessential transit system of mid-sized southern city (i.e. a small and poorly coordinated network of bus lines used almost exclusively by the poor) is fast becoming a diverse and vibrant system that makes sense for people of all socioeconomic backgrounds.

As was outlined by CATS CEO Parker, the overhaul began with an aggressive community outreach effort in which system staff conducted hundreds of listening sessions throughout the community. What they learned from those meetings helped spur a number of practical, common sense changes that have made the system much more user-friendly.

For instance, whereas bus lines used to run almost exclusively to and from the urban center, the system now includes a number of neighborhood connector routes. This assures dramatically faster service for seniors and lower income patrons who used to face two and three hour ordeals to get to the store or the doctor. Bus routes have also been published in a much more convenient, condensed format.

In order to attract suburban, white collar commuters to take longer rides from surrounding communities and to park their cars, the system launched a number of buses that feature airplane-like features such as high back seats, reading lights, storage compartments for briefcases and individual air vents for each rider.        

LYNX Trains

Of course, the centerpiece of the new CATS is the LYNX commuter rail system. Launched last fall, the shiny new trains run a 9.6 mile route through Charlotte’s “south corridor.” There are 15 stops along the way on the so-called “Blue Line.”

Thus far, the trains have been and an unmitigated success. Not only are riders voting with their feet (ridership has been well above projected levels) but so are investors. New or announced investment along the line (much of which runs through formerly struggling neighborhoods) is now nearly $1.9 billion. By 2011, it is expected that more than 7,500 housing units and 627,000 square feet of commercial property will have been developed along the Blue Line.

Together with the reconfigured and upgraded bus service, the new and future LYNX lines are providing the skeleton for what has the potential to be the ultimate antidote to much of the sprawl and congestion that plagues modern sunbelt America: a cohesive, planned urban community in which land use and transportation complement each other so as to reduce environmental degradation and enhance the quality of life.

This “changes everything”

The key to Charlotte’s transportation renaissance, of course, is a local 0.5% sales tax that was adopted on selected products and services almost a decade ago. The tax generated $70 million in 2007 and remains at the heart of the region’s “2030 Transit Plan.” Last fall, Mecklenburg County residents voted to preserve the tax despite an aggressive, even alarmist, repeal campaign that was aided by the state’s prominent far right, anti-government think tanks.

The size of the vote to preserve the tax (an overwhelming 70% to 30% margin) seems to have sent a measureable shock wave throughout the state’s political community. As former DOT Secretary Hunt said last week, the Mecklenburg vote “changes everything.” It was crystal clear, he noted, that voters want new investment in modern public transit and are willing to pay for it.

The need for such new investments is obvious to anyone who looks. In the Triangle, rapid growth is quickly transforming Raleigh, Cary, Durham and Chapel Hill into a single sprawling urban area. Rapid growth is also transforming Asheville, Wilmington and the Triad. At a previous meeting of the 21st Century Study’s Intermodal Subcommittee, for example, members heard compelling testimony about the explosive growth in demand for commuter bus service from Surry County into Winston-Salem. When combined with the skyrocketing cost of fuel, growing pressure to reduce carbon emissions and the fact that North Carolina will realize a population growth on the order of 50% over the next two decades, the real question is “what took so long?” 

Going Forward

The new and exploding public interest in mass transit does not, of course, guarantee a happy ending. Not only are powerful forces on the extreme right still committed to shooting down any public-minded solutions, but state government’s transportation establishment retains a less than sterling record in its stewardship of public resources. Whether it can shepherd a broad new public transit effort in its present configuration is an open question.

And, of course, even Charlotte’s plan is far from perfect. Sales taxes remain an extremely regressive revenue source and current plans have provided far too little in the way of affordable housing (just a handful of units thus far).

Still, despite the imperfections and open questions, Charlotte’s success is a remarkable and incredibly hopeful development and a potential tipping point for the entire state. It would be a terrible shame if, in the weeks and months ahead, state leaders didn’t build on the momentum. Let’s hope they don’t miss the bus. 

About the author

Rob Schofield, Director of NC Policy Watch, has three decades of experience as a lawyer, lobbyist, writer and commentator. At Policy Watch, Rob writes and edits daily online commentaries and handles numerous public speaking and electronic media appearances. He also delivers a radio commentary that’s broadcast weekdays on WRAL-FM and WCHL and hosts News and Views, a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina.
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