The Charlotte region has a big choice.
Should the region keep sprawling outward, adding endless asphalt, subdivisions, malls and big boxes – and gruesome Atlanta-style traffic congestion?
Or should it invest in train and bus lines connecting a constellation of walkable, friendly neighborhoods along with a variety of business districts? This scenario puts high value on preserving the region's “green lungs” – farms, forests, pathways, environmental breathing space. Growth efforts focus on Charlotte's existing neighborhoods and town centers and the historic ring cities such as Rock Hill, Salisbury and Monroe. Commuter rail is used for longer connections; buses and light rail are used for shorter ones.
In this scenario, auto travel doesn't end – it simply yields its total supremacy to transit, allowing compact neighborhoods where residents don't need to drive for every trip. As in other world cities, driving is an option, not a necessity.
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The skinny tracks of the new Lynx line have succeeded in transforming Charlotte's national image from one of endless suburbia surrounding tall bank towers to a city moving to 21st-century mobility and sustainability.
Now's the time to build on that historic breakthrough.
Ridership on the Lynx Blue Line – 16,000 weekday trips in July and August – has been well ahead of projections, boosted even higher by rising gas prices and a recent gas shortage from Hurricane Ike. It has stimulated an estimated $1.86 billion worth of new housing development and has lured such top firms as Cherokee Partners.
Public enthusiasm is high. But what comes next?
The Charlotte Area Transit System has a decent, multi-line plan. But it has a huge problem: slow timing.
Five years or more must pass before the Blue Line is completed up North Tryon Street, past UNC Charlotte to Interstate 485.
The first phase of the Purple Line (north toward Mooresville) opens in 2012 but completion isn't scheduled until 2019.
A Silver Line (southeast corridor) opens in stages from 2022 to 2026. And the associated streetcar line extension to Charlotte/Douglas International Airport won't happen until 2034, more than a quarter century away.
That's an intolerably long time – and not just because one of the authors of this series would have to live to 102 to see the full build-out!
Now is the moment for this big, bustling, historically confident region to order a rapid speed-up and plan for more lines – additional ones in Mecklenburg County with negotiations to extend lines into neighboring counties.
How to do it? Charlotte needs to pull a Denver.
Limited light rail began there in the '90s, but voters decisively rejected the transit agency's 1997 proposal for a multibillion-dollar expansion.
With painstaking negotiations and planning, a coalition of the Greater Denver Chamber of Commerce and environmental leaders, the transit agency and the region's mayors – 31 in all – conceived and endorsed a regionwide system of six lines, 119 miles with 50 stations, including Denver's airport. The expanded system had a stunning $4.7 billion cost, to be financed through a sales tax boost with no assurance of federal support.
In November 2004, despite strong opposition from Colorado's governor, conservative think tanks and auto dealers, the voters overwhelmingly approved.
The payoff: The Denver region is fast developing an extensive and popular alternative to getting around by car.
Billions of dollars of new investment are reported along the new lines – likely enough, through a few years' taxes, to pay back FasTracks' cost, which with inflation is now estimated at $7.9 billion.
Don't discount the audacity factor. Denver has become famed nationwide for its civic nerve and leadership, beacons to capital and talented youth.
And it's not just Denver.
Last month, Toronto announced a whopping $50 billion expansion plan for its rapid transit system to be built over several decades.
Houston, Dallas, Phoenix and San Jose, Calif. – historically car-oriented Sun Belt cities – have all to some extent started organizing their growth around new transit lines.
So if Denver, Toronto, Dallas and Phoenix, why not Charlotte?
To make it easier, why not a new chapter in N.C. transportation policy?
We were surprised to hear a father of North Carolina's modern-day highway system – former state Rep. Sam Hunt, a former N.C. DOT secretary – make that very case. Hunt authored the 1989 transportation bill that aided sprawl by authorizing beltways around every major N.C. city.
But Charlotte's new Lynx line, said Hunt, has “changed the dynamics of the discussion. They went in and did something proper and right, spent enough money to make it an efficient line, and people are riding it. Development is coming around that line.…Any time you have a success you can point to, you have something you can emulate.”
So Hunt supports a bill, introduced by Rep. Becky Carney, D-Mecklenburg, and Sen. Richard Stevens, R-Wake, that would let other urban N.C. counties do what Mecklenburg did – hold a referendum to authorize a local tax to finance a transit system and commit the state to help pay for it once local funds are committed.
The next Charlotte breakthrough – not just completing and expanding today's lines, but getting surrounding counties to join – will again hinge on such legislation.
The Lynx system wouldn't even exist if Mecklenburg leaders, including Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, hadn't mobilized to travel to Raleigh in 1997 to get state permission for a local tax referendum.
With its careful political work at the state level by many committed transit supporters, Charlotte created the precedent that may now be key for it – and other metro areas across North Carolina.
Similar careful and steady political groundwork at state level – this time by the entire region – will be needed to make an accelerated transit system happen.