Three years ago the Blue Line Extension was on the ropes. Half-cent sales tax revenue for transit had declined to the lowest level since 2004, prompting reduced bus service, fare increases and more questions about how future rail transit projects could ever be done. The project had partial design funds but needed more. The congressional funding to pay for such design work was eliminated when Congress pulled back all earmarks.
In the throes of the Great Recession, we might have abandoned our plans and postponed our efforts until things got better – until the recession passed, employment rates rebounded and sales tax revenues strengthened. We didn’t. Instead, this region banded together and forged a bipartisan coalition to work at the federal, state and local levels to ensure progress.
We did so because the Charlotte metro area is the fastest growing region in the United States. To keep recruiting and retaining innovative industry and generate strong economic growth in our city, we need to use our existing footprint better, which means revitalizing areas such as North Tryon Street.
Last week, the U.S. Department of Transportation rewarded our tenacity by granting $580 million to complete the Blue Line Extension. This grant is the largest we have ever received and ensures that the $1.16 billion project will be built. This success would not have been possible without a strong, bipartisan coalition of elected officials, business leaders and engaged community stakeholders. Building this project will put thousands of people to work. Having it complete will facilitate thousands of new jobs.
As we celebrate this great achievement and its affirmation of our spirit of teamwork, I am compelled to keep our full transit vision moving. I do so not out of hubris or because it is particularly good politics, but because, in the next 10 years, we will need precise answers as to why talented people and profitable businesses should reside in Charlotte instead of finding a cheaper place in our region, where they can still take advantage of our great airport.
The reasons transit made sense in 1998 are even stronger today as growth pressures mount. If we continue making progress on our transit vision, the case will make itself – new infill development, stronger neighborhoods, reduced traffic and vibrant transit corridors will emerge. If we stop now, despite all of our work and hundreds of millions invested, we could still see a dramatic turn to the kind of sprawl that ruins great cities. That’s unacceptable.
It would be hard to overstate the challenges we face in completing our transit vision. Dedicated federal and state transit dollars are likely to shrink and gone are the familiar formulas (50 percent federal, 25 percent state and 25 percent local matching funds) once relied upon to finance both the South Corridor and the Blue Line Extension. Still, it is a vision worth fighting for.
That vision includes a commuter rail line from Charlotte to Huntersville, Cornelius, Davidson and, we hope, Mooresville. At a cost of $452 million, we do not have dollars from the sales tax to pay for it – and probably will not for another 20 years. The vision also includes the East-West Streetcar, a 10-mile project from Beatties Ford Road to Central Avenue. This streetcar would not be a replica trolley a la a “San Francisco treat.” It would be a modern version, resembling light rail cars and drawing development into our urban core.
Want to get to the airport by rail? The vision includes modern streetcar service to Charlotte/Douglas International Airport. We may even expand streetcar service down Monroe Road as a cheaper, more effective economic development investment instead of light rail along Independence Boulevard. This change would cut costs by hundreds of millions of dollars because streetcars are cheaper than light rail.
In 1998, no one thought the half-cent sales tax would be insufficient to complete the transit plan. It is. The Great Recession made it worse. That’s why the Charlotte City Council has been studying how to jumpstart the streetcar without exclusive dependence on sales tax revenues. That’s also why, in 2010, the Metropolitan Transit Commission convened a workshop on financing our transit vision and started a Red Line Task Force to study alternative funding strategies for that project.
I celebrate the great teamwork that led us to build light rail. The Blue Line Extension may be the final piece of light rail infrastructure we build. But our vision for rail transit is bigger than light rail. Last week’s announcement requires us to think beyond individual projects and consider how we plan to complete the entire system. Those conversations may not be easy or pretty. But if we continue to work together, they will help us secure an even stronger future.