Friday, June 6, 2008

Light Rail Pays Off In Charlotte: Milwaukee Loses Through Political Timidity

You will recall that Charlie Sykes hauled out all the old chestnuts the other day when he attacked me for suggesting that light rail, killed by Tommy Thompson eleven years ago, could have offered motorists in the Milwaukee area today an appealing alternative to $4-per-gallon.

And an economic development tool, with stations and lines that attract residential and commercial investment.

That very scenario is unfolding in one city now constructing light rail - - Charlotte, North Carolina - - with a population of about 625,000 people.

Milwaukee's most recent population estimate is 602,000, or about 5% less than Charlotte's.

Here is the text of a recent story from Governing Magazine about what's happening in Charlotte - - and by contrast, what we are missing because of traditional risk-aversion and one-dimensional thinking and governing here.


More than Just a Train

June 2008 Governing Magazine


I’m starting to believe the hyperbole about the revolution being spawned by Charlotte’s new light-rail line.

Riding the spiffy silver and blue trains of Charlotte's new light-rail line, I watch through the train's windows how cranes and excavators push around dirt for new development projects.

Back when urban junkies — myself included — dreamed that cities could center around train lines, we railed at the formula-oriented developers who could crank out only cul-de-sacs and subdivisions near the newest highway off-ramp.

They ignored the possibility of putting apartment buildings and mixed-used projects beside a trolley line, even if a city could manage to get a rail line built.

No longer.

Now big international companies such as Cherokee Investment Partners, which is involved here in Charlotte, are poised — even eager — to swoop down, buy land and put up pedestrian-friendly businesses and homes around new transit stations.

And they're being joined by plenty of competitors.

This is not to suggest that progress in Charlotte has been easy. Arranging streets, parking, condominiums, shops, plazas and other components of development around transit here involves many choices.

Planners and developers still are struggling to balance the competing needs of parking and active street life in these new projects.

But in terms of a market and a vision, there is increasing clarity. Living near a transit stop has become part of a tried-and-true formula of downtown living.

Charlotte opened its $465 million, 15-stop, 10-mile "blue line" last November.

LYNX, as it is called, has about 13,000 riders daily, well ahead of the low-ball federal projections.

Now, the city and region are working on the many other ideas for lines and extensions.

A total of 7,000 new condominiums are planned along the line.Seeing how successful Charlotte's new line is, I start believing what I first dismissed as hyperbole — that it was revolutionary.

David King, who helped shepherd through assistance for LYNX from the state's transportation department when he was its deputy secretary, says, "Most people don't realize this is going to change the face and shape of Charlotte."

Last November, just weeks before LYNX opened, a grassroots referendum backed by angry anti-tax and anti-transit activists asked voters to repeal the half-cent sales tax for transit funding.

It failed by a two-to-one margin.

"The light-rail vote was a seminal moment," says Mark Peres, the president and editor of Charlotte Viewpoint, a magazine about culture and civic life.

"We were being held hostage by a minority viewpoint. Those people just sort of went away. It's just seismic in its impact."

The original plan for financing the system, however, builds in some difficulties for the future.

Back in the late 1990s, Mecklenburg County and the city of Charlotte banded together with Raleigh, Durham, Greensboro and other cities to push a bill through the legislature allowing counties to propose tax increases to their citizens to fund transit.

Charlotte's voters approved the tax in a referendum. There also emerged an agreement that the state DOT would match local funding, or 25 percent of the total cost.

The federal government was expected to pay 50 percent.Now, as new lines are planned that go beyond Mecklenburg, there is a question of who will pay and how.

Will surrounding counties and localities enact their own sales taxes?

Or is Charlotte expected to be the primary local funder, even for lines outside Mecklenburg County?

And what should the role of the state transportation agency be?

It is, after all, the one agency whose jurisdiction cuts across multiple county lines.

I believe the parties should explore having the state agency take more direct responsibility for building and paying for transit within urban areas.

When the state builds a road, it takes on the burden of coordinating with all the counties it goes through. It buys land, negotiates rights of way and designs and builds a project.

Why should transit be any different?

DOTs are traditionally highway-minded, and North Carolina's is certainly no exception. But bringing these agencies into the transit fold suggests a way to turn them into allies.

Eventually, it makes sense for state transportation money to be portable and to be used for either roads or transit lines, as conditions fit.

Whatever the models developed, it's a near-certainty that the new lines here in Charlotte will be built. There is simply too much interest in this new way of living.


Anonymous said...

The video at the LYNX website:

shows an interior that looks very similar to Salt Lake City's light rail, which is built by Siemens.

The LYNX is as well. Lots of info here:

Look at the purchases ($52M) that U.S. manufacturing is missing out on.

At the LYNX website, I see $2.60 round trip, and one can use a bus transfer pass for the train. (What a deal!) Also,

"Dozens of bus routes are timed to connect with trains at the Blue Line stations, making it easy to get to work, to shopping or wherever you need to be."

Again, bus routes timed to connect with trains. Charlotte is aiming for the full plan.

The train goes right through a convention center.

In the video I see someone with a bicycle mounted vertically. That seems like something new. SLC's rail cars don't have that.

Anonymous said...

I was in Charlotte right before they opened the line and had a chance to speak to a couple of the LYNX people and see the trains while they were being tested. It was amazing those trains were almost silent! They were concerned people wouldn't hear them coming. Further we drove the line and it was amazing to see the TOD going up all along the line. Though one thing to point out is the City did it right as they were upzoning all along the line. Here are some photos:

Anonymous said...

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett has a June 3 piece in The Small Business Times touting his Downtown Circulator plan. I am sorry, but I am not convinced. Yes, I agree downtown develpment is important. And, yes, I agree rail can promote economic development. But does it follow that simply any use of rail promotes develpment? I don't think so.

Or, is the Circulator really the best use of rail in our area? How, exactly, might this proposed loop be built out in the future? I am not seeing the logical jumping-off points for extending rail to other parts of our community from the Circulator.

James Rowen said...

to Anon:

I certainly cannot speak for Mayor Barrett, but there is plenty of data showing development following train installations in cities across the country.

I think the downtown loop has always been seen as the start of more modern transit in the downtown, connecting to the new InterModal station, and ultimately connecting further out in the city and county.

The Convention Center District Board has done considerable work on this project, as has the MMAC.

Anonymous said...

Anon has some good points.

My guess is that rail authorities would have a better idea of how best to implement light rail.

Someone told me that straight lines outward is good, loops not necessarily so. (One could make the case that too small of a loop sort of defeats the purpose of a high-speed rail in urban settings; maybe trolleys would be better for that.) Paul Soglin once said that light rail should connect things. I think that is a good idea. Better to connect existing developments and grow from there rather than expect things to develop from practically nothing just because of the rail.

Chicago has a well-known loop, but that came about because a high-power retailer many years ago wanted to make sure potential shoppers came right past his store.

If you are a resident of Milwaukee, Anon, giving input at open city meetings would be good.

Anonymous said...

In reply to James Rowen:

I had not heard about this "considerable work." But I thought you were including Mayor Barrett among those timid politicians (above). Do I recall correctly that our local pols would not even allow us to vote on a very small tax increase dedicated to funding transit?