Democratic and Republican elected officials including Gov. Pat McCrory gathered for a momentous occasion Thursday – the groundbreaking ceremony marking the start of construction of the LYNX Blue Line light rail extension. This will extend our current light-rail system northward, from uptown to UNC Charlotte. Once the extension is complete, the Blue Line will double in length and stretch nearly 20 miles. The project, which won a sizeable federal transit grant last year, has placed Charlotte in the national spotlight as a city with the foresight to use mass transit to channel population growth and development.
Anyone who rides the light rail from uptown through South End and along South Boulevard can see how residential and business communities along the route have grown and are thriving, sparked by the ready accessibility of mass transit as a commuter option. By the time the extension is completed in 2017, communities along the corridor from uptown to UNC Charlotte will flourish in much the same way. This is smart urban growth, channeling our urban population into areas where infrastructure like roads, water and sewage lines are already in place, and it helps to prevent the blight of disorganized urban sprawl that has plagued other metropolitan areas.
But this region’s transportation needs will only grow. As the 2010 census documents, our region is the nation’s fastest growing urbanized area. From 2000 to 2010, Mecklenburg County’s population grew by 225,000. We are projected to add 360,000 more by 2022.
Predictable, efficient mobility to all parts of our city and region will be a critical part of managing this growth. It has been, and will continue to be, pivotal in attracting businesses and opportunities for higher education to the greater Charlotte region. The current blueprint envisions a commuter rail line running parallel with I-77 connecting Charlotte to Huntersville, Cornelius, Davidson, and Mooresville; a streetcar beginning uptown and running parallel with Freedom Drive, Wilkinson and West Boulevards to reach the Charlotte Douglas International Airport; a streetcar project from Interstate 85 to Johnson C. Smith on Beatties Ford Road to the Eastland Mall area along Central Avenue; and the potential for a rapid transit bus line and designated lane along Independence Boulevard coupled with a streetcar down Monroe Road. This may seem like an ambitious plan for the Mecklenburg County we know now, but it will be a necessity for the Mecklenburg County of the near future.
There are also quality of life advantages for Charlotte’s working population. Accessible mass transit means an alternative to commuting by car and predictability of the length of a commute. Shorter commute times mean more time to spend with families. The free standing communities that develop alongside mass transit routes give people the option of living in neighborhoods where they can shop, find entertainment, work, or live in retirement without having to rely on a car. These benefits are as great as the jobs, business and educational opportunities that an urban transit system helps to spawn.
Thursday was an important day for our city. Now, let us use that momentum to continue moving our region forward.
David L. Howard, a Democrat, is an at-large member of the Charlotte City Council.
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