Politics & Government

Happy to be in NC? Data show upswing in several measures

Afternoon traffic travels along the south bound lanes on I-77 near Exit 31 in Mooresville on May 4, 2015. The average one-way commute for North Carolinians is about 24 minutes. That’s lower than the U.S. average of 26 minutes, according to 2015 Census data.
Afternoon traffic travels along the south bound lanes on I-77 near Exit 31 in Mooresville on May 4, 2015. The average one-way commute for North Carolinians is about 24 minutes. That’s lower than the U.S. average of 26 minutes, according to 2015 Census data. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

Think about the quality of the air you breathe, the idle hours in your commute, the safety of your family or business, the convenience of internet access to find a job and browse Facebook.

Statistics suggest most in North Carolina fare well on those fronts or, at least, line up with the typical experience of their fellow Americans. Government figures also show relative stability or improvement in those areas over the past 20 years.

Yet a dive behind the data reveals a divergent state – a story of progress for some and difficulty for others. To see the differences, look no further than Fayetteville Street in downtown Raleigh.

There, Peter Kimani walks like a man with a purpose.

With a business card in hand from a manager of a nearby hotel on a recent Thursday afternoon, Kimani pulled open the doors leading to the county’s downtown express library. Dressed neatly in a plaid blue button-up and a stylish newsboy cap, Kimani strolled past short shelves of colorful children’s books.

He took a slip of paper from a machine near a row of four computers.

He waited to use the free public computers to apply for a hotel bartending job.

This is his routine at least three times a week.

“Every employer wants you to do the application online,” Kimani explained after a 20-minute internet session – the maximum time allowed at the branch when others are in line.

1 in 5 NC households have no internet

It may surprise some that an estimated 1 of every 5 households across the state don’t have internet – not even dial-up. Even in urban Charlotte, 15 percent of adults don’t use the internet, a 2012 state study found.

U.S. Census data shows 21 percent of participating survey homes in North Carolina reported no internet subscription in 2015, the most recent data available, sourced from nearly 3.8 million households. That’s just behind the U.S. average of 19 percent and Georgia and Virginia’s rates of 20 percent and 17 percent, respectively.

93 percent of N.C. residents are in range of broadband service

North Carolina’s connectivity may change drastically in coming years.

State officials want high-speed broadband internet accessible for all residents. The state’s plan calls for improved access in schools and low-population counties.

In Charlotte, Google rolled out Fiber service earlier this year, with company officials saying it’s nearly 100 times faster than traditional broadband. Google has said it plans to offer low-cost $15 per month plans and free, limited internet subscriptions for select low-income neighborhoods.

Officials say about 93 percent of North Carolinians have access to broadband now, though some don’t subscribe.

Internet access is more scarce in rural counties and more than half of the state’s low-income population is priced out from service, a recent N.C. Broadband Infrastructure Office study shows.

Although service gaps exist, Census data suggest access has spread to reach more N.C. households at a greater pace since 2001 than in the country as a whole.

Public transit could reduce commutes

Much as state officials make long-term plans for broadband reach, local leaders say they’re looking down the road for transportation solutions.

The average one-way commute for North Carolinians is about 24 minutes. That’s lower than the U.S. average of 26 minutes, according to 2015 Census data.

Charlotte commuters will soon see expanded uptown public transit options and eventually new toll lanes on Interstate 77.

Commutes take longer than they did 20 years ago when the average in North Carolina was less than 20 minutes. In growing metro areas, especially, local officials keep their eye on commute times.

“We can’t build our way out of it,” Wake County planning Director Tim Maloney said of traffic woes and population growth.

That’s one reason Maloney and other regional officials propose a major public transit infrastructure plan to add a rapid bus system, commuter rail and more regular service buses. To pay for it, Wake County voters are being asked on the Nov. 8 ballot to approve a half-cent sales tax increase.

Transportation officials say just 1 percent of Wake County residents use public transportation, such as a bus to get to work. Highways and secondary roads are clogged and more congestion is expected as Wake County adds an average 64 new residents per day. It’s now the nation’s second-fastest growing county with a population of 1 million people or more.

In Charlotte, state and city projects combine to offer commuters more options.

Construction is underway for new express toll lanes on Interstate 77, for example. The additional lanes will run from uptown to Mooresville – a stretch of highway often congested. Officials project the new lanes will open, with variable fees for drivers, in 2019.

Public transit upgrades are also in the works. The Charlotte Area Transit System plans to open an extension of the Lynx Blue Line next year. And, a 2.5-mile expansion of uptown’s streetcar will be open in three years.

City officials have said next year they may seek a new tax to pay for future transit projects, such as a rapid bus service to run on or near Independence Boulevard, one of Charlotte’s busiest thoroughfares during peak hours.

Air quality still delicate

A successful public transit system could make environment and health advocates in North Carolina happy, too.

Nearly half of the state’s emissions of nitrogen oxide – an air pollutant known to affect lung health – comes from road vehicles.

Stricter environmental standards nationally have cut emissions in half over the past two decades, federal data show. North Carolina has cut emissions by about 51 percent – better than Georgia’s 49 percent but worse than Virginia’s 58 percent, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Still, advocates say those figures don’t show the delicacy of the situation.

We are one bad day from being non-attainment in Mecklenburg County.

Terry Lansdell, Clean Air Carolina activist

Only recently, for example, did the Charlotte-Mecklenburg region meet federal environmental ozone standards. The area was the last in the state to meet EPA standards and previously had been in “non-attainment” until 2014.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, one-third of North Carolina counties were below standards. Officials attribute much of the progress to a 2002 state law that required significant emissions reductions at coal-fueled power plants.

“But, we are one bad day from being non-attainment in Mecklenburg County,” said Terry Lansdell, Charlotte resident and program director for Clean Air Carolina, an advocacy group.

The organization formed in 2003, shortly after the American Lung Association listed Charlotte as one of the top 10 worst cities nationally for air quality. The group does air quality education and pushes state lawmakers to pass environmental and health protection regulations.

The Clean Smokestacks Act of 2002 and laws like it protect quality of life in North Carolina, Lansdell said. He worries, though, about what he says are legislative attempts to roll back even minor environmental protections, like the 2015 repeal of an anti-idling regulation that sought to reduce emissions from heavy-duty diesel vehicles.

County officials closely monitor air quality and oversee initiatives aimed specifically at reducing emissions, such as grant programs to help businesses replace aging diesel vehicles, said Megan Green of Mecklenburg County’s air quality department. Those programs include replacing some construction vehicles, which emit nearly 90 percent of emissions in and around Charlotte – much higher than most places statewide.

Violence down, drug abuse up

North Carolina can tout gains in recent years in other categories directly affecting quality of life.

The statewide property crime rate has dropped by 45 percent and the violent crime rate by 46 percent since 1995, according to 2015 data from the FBI.

But law enforcement officers and communities face new challenges, like an uptick locally and nationally in drug abuse and overdoses. North Carolina ranks second in the South for the highest number of annual drug overdose deaths – which now claim more lives than car accidents in the state.

“It is a very tall order,” says Raleigh Police Department Capt. Tommy Klein of police work.

Klein, a Raleigh native, is a former narcotics detective who now leads about 80 officers as commander of the city’s North Division.

“It’s whatever crime is affecting quality of life in that neighborhood,” Klein said. “You can’t solve everyone’s problems. We try to manage and mitigate.”

Partnering with local charitable groups and victim advocates is critical, he said. So, too, is Nextdoor, a website for neighbors and community agencies.

This summer, before the fatal police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott roiled the city, a Nextdoor post helped bring about 50 people to a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department community forum. The nearly two-hour conversation focused on national controversies involving racially-charged police brutality and shootings.

In Charlotte, police use of force – including nonlethal actions like a Taser – has occurred during 2 percent of arrests over the past three years.

But Scott’s death in September sparked protests and prompted calls for several Charlotte officials to resign. Authorities maintain Scott, who was wearing an ankle holster, posed a threat to officers after allegedly refusing to drop a gun he was holding. But, police video footage doesn’t clearly show whether Scott was holding a gun at the time and activists have charged the police shooting is another example of racial bias and police violence against African-Americans.

Overall, violent crime has risen in Charlotte over the past five years, police records show.

Charlotte authorities report reductions in several areas – for example, less property crime and fewer sexual assaults and home burglaries. In some parts of the growing city, though, police have a challenge curbing homicides and aggravated assaults.

Still, several residents who attended the recent police forum say they feel mostly safe in Charlotte.

“I like my community. ... Our biggest problem is these kids who have nothing better to do than create havoc,” said 70-year-old Bertie Loftin, who lives in Charlotte’s Pawtuckett neighborhood.

Loftin runs the neighborhood’s Facebook page, used for organizing community yard sales and sending out unofficial crime alerts. Earlier this year, the Facebook page led officers to Loftin’s door to talk about neighborhood concerns. Later, they had an informal meeting in her living room with neighbors, police and an animal control officer.

For Loftin, that kind of response improves quality of life because, she says: “Things really got solved that night.”

Anna Douglas: 202-383-6012, @ADouglasNews