Why Charlotte leaders are looking to Denver for the future of transit

Denver Union Station features transit, restaurants, retail and The Crawford Hotel.
Denver Union Station features transit, restaurants, retail and The Crawford Hotel. Ellen Jaskol Photography

Charlotte leaders got a glimpse this week of a new transit system built around a downtown hub for commuter rail, light rail and buses that’s helping fuel a building boom in the Mile High City.

They also got a glimpse of the intense regional cooperation and robust sales tax Denver put together to pull it off – something that could be a challenge in Mecklenburg and the surrounding counties.

The three dozen local leaders, including Mayor Jennifer Roberts, Mecklenburg commissioners Chairman Trevor Fuller, city staff and local developers, spent Wednesday and Thursday touring Denver’s Union Station, the product of a $500 million project to restore the structure. Ringing the station, cranes and new construction dot the landscape.

“I think we’ll come back with a lot of inspiration,” said Michael Smith, CEO of Charlotte Center City Partners. The uptown economic development group organized the trip.

They’re also likely to return to Charlotte with a sense of just how much regional cooperation is required for a transit system as big as Denver’s, which will have more than 120 miles of rail when it’s complete. Most of the Denver system’s funding comes from a 1-cent sales tax in Denver and the seven surrounding counties. That’s compared to a half-cent sales tax in Mecklenburg that provides much of the funding for the Charlotte Area Transit System.

“It seems as though it appeared magically,” said Tami Door, CEO of the Downtown Denver Partnership. “But it’s hard.”

More than 40 Denver-area mayors supported the FasTracks funding effort to raise the sales tax in 2004 – a major feat of regionalism. To renovate Union Station, Denver and private redevelopment partners put together a diverse stream of funding that included city money, tax grants, federal loans and the sale of land the transit system owned around the station.

Charlotte leaders hope to move the city’s Amtrak station from North Tryon to a new Gateway Station uptown, located at Graham, Fourth and Trade streets, which would also be the terminal for the Red Line commuter rail to Lake Norman.

But financing big transit projects in Charlotte will likely run into hurdles. Although the federal government awarded a $25 million grant last year to help jump-start the Gateway Station project, the rest of the money has yet to be identified for a project that could cost $200 million, according to some estimates.

CATS is spending $1.2 billion for the second phase of the Blue Line light rail, extending the line from uptown to University City. The city hasn’t identified funding for the roughly $500 million the Red Line would cost, and Norfolk Southern has balked at sharing its freight tracks with a commuter train. Other plans, such as rail service to the airport or Matthews, remain further off.

Chris Frampton of East West Partners, one of the Denver station’s master developers, said despite the challenges it’s essential for cities to build transit to avoid choking on traffic in the future.

“Cities have to do this stuff,” he said. “We have a mobility problem that can’t be solved with cars.”

Some of the Charlotte leaders said they are encouraged after seeing Denver.

“I’m impressed with the comprehensiveness of it,” said Mecklenburg commissioners Chairman Trevor Fuller. He said Charlotte and the surrounding areas will have to be creative and look to multiple financing streams to fund future transit lines. “We’re going to have to be resourceful,” said Fuller.

He said Mecklenburg might have to look beyond the planned transit lines within its boundaries and involve neighboring counties, as Denver has done.

But that could be tricky – Charlotte borders South Carolina, and other counties have different demographic and political makeups.

In Denver, “they’ve got half of the state’s population and a cooperative state legislature,” said Charlotte City Council member Vi Lyles. “That helps them a lot.”

Charlotte must find money to close the gap between the $25 million federal grant and the first phase of bringing Amtrak’s station to uptown, at an estimated cost of $62.5 million. And the second phase – a temporary station – would cost another $25 million.

Roberts said the planning group needs to involve more of the areas around Charlotte.

“Many of our lines could easily go into neighboring counties, and (bus rapid transit) could do that,” said Roberts. “I think it is time to really go out into the community and talk about Gateway and the entire plan, and get feedback.”

Said Fuller: “If we’re talking about regionalism, you’ve got to communicate to someone in Lincolnton why they should care.”

The Denver area has a long history of regionalism, in part due to necessity: The region makes up a majority of the state's population and tax receipts, so there’s no other game in town, so to speak. The transit system has been run by a regional entity that covers multiple counties since its inception.

But that doesn’t mean cooperation has always come easily. In 1997, the first attempt at a ballot measure for a regional sales tax increase to pay for an expanded system went down 57 to 43 percent.

“People say, did you all wake up one morning and decide to cooperate? We didn’t,” said Maria Garcia Berry of CRL Associates, a public policy firm that helped craft the successful 2004 ballot campaign.

In that campaign, the proponents spent months polling and conducting focus groups. They crafted the campaign around the premise of “four pennies on a $10 purchase,” while the opposition painted it as a 67 percent sales tax increase.

The plan was to raise $4.7 billion for 122 miles of rail. All 42 of the metropolitan Denver area’s mayors supported the effort, which passed in a mirror of the 1997 vote – 57 percent in favor, 43 percent against.

Charlotte Center City Partners organized this week’s trip, which cost about $1,300 per participant. Center City Partners did not pay for the participants, whose respective government bodies or companies picked up the tab.

Despite all the transit talk, there was no escaping one elephant in the room: the Denver Broncos’ Super Bowl win over the Carolina Panthers in February. “Super Bowl Champion” shirts greeted the Charlotte delegation in the Denver airport. And Mayor Roberts was later presented with one of the shirts – courtesy of Denver’s mayor.

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo