Politics & Government

One of Charlotte’s signature projects is in trouble as city comes up $77 million short

Drone views of The Cross Charlotte Trail

The Cross Charlotte Trail is meant to run from one end of Charlotte to the other, then connect to points in the county. But there isn’t enough money in the budget to finish it now, City Council heard Monday, January 7, 2018.
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The Cross Charlotte Trail is meant to run from one end of Charlotte to the other, then connect to points in the county. But there isn’t enough money in the budget to finish it now, City Council heard Monday, January 7, 2018.

One of Charlotte’s premier greenway projects, designed to provide a foot and bicycle connection across the whole city, has run into a big funding shortfall that leaves its exact future in question, the City Council heard Monday.

The Cross Charlotte Trail is about $77 million short, city staff said. The $38 million worth of bond money that’s available won’t be enough to complete the 26-mile, continuous trail spanning Charlotte. Staff attributed the shortfall to costs that are significantly higher than when the project was originally estimated with figures based on the county’s construction costs for portions outside the city.

There’s enough funding to complete 18 continuous miles of the trail in Charlotte, largely by linking existing greenway segments with connections between Brandywine and Tyvola roads, Seventh and Tenth streets and Little Sugar Creek to McMullen Creek in South Charlotte. The $38 million in available funding will build 3 more miles of trail, leaving 10.4 miles unfunded.

The unfunded part of the trail is the northeast portion, including segments that would run through densely populated and rapidly developing areas along the Blue Line extension from uptown to UNC Charlotte. Instead of building all the remaining portions as a dedicated, separate, greenway-style trail, about eight miles of trail planned north of NoDa would be placed along existing streets, with signs designating them as part of the Cross Charlotte Trail and giving people directions to connect to the next part.

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“It’s a combination of existing (sidewalks) and sidewalks that are currently being implemented through other projects,” said Mike Davis, a Charlotte engineer. The hope would be that developers can then be convinced or required to build the unfunded portions of the Cross Charlotte Trail piecemeal as they redevelop land leading along the planned route to University City.

It isn’t clear where future funding would come from, or when that funding might be secured. Some council members called the proposed interim solution inadequate.

“Are we saying in plain English we do not have enough money to finish the Cross Charlotte Trail?” asked council member Braxton Winston.

“That’s right,” Charlotte engineer Mike Davis said. “$38 million does not build all 26 miles of the Cross Charlotte Trail.”

“What we went to the community and proposed...what would be the trail will not be reflected now,” said council member LaWana Mayfield. “We really need to have a conversation about pausing.”

Mayor Vi Lyles said the trail is “not going to be operational the way it was planned back when everyone was excited about that.”

“It is a dilemma for us,” she said. “We need to ask ourselves: Limited resources and not as much opportunity, so where do we want to go with it?”

The Cross Charlotte Trail has been in the works for six years, with a $1.2 million master plan completed two years ago that set a completion target of 2021. It doesn’t call for building 26 miles of new trail through Charlotte — a big part of the plan relies on connecting the already-built Little Sugar Creek, Toby Creek and Mallard Creek greenways. The Cross Charlotte Trail would also connect to other greenways outside the city limits in Mecklenburg County, ultimately linking 40 miles, and the county would handle ongoing maintenance costs.

The project is a showpiece for the city, with the goal of helping Charlotte “to be nationally recognized by putting Charlotte among the top 25 cities in the country with the most multi-use trails” and according to its description.

Voters approved bond referendums over the past four years that helped provide the money for the trail.

“This is the reason we’re seeing many communities across the country making investments in trails just like this,” said Liz Babson, director of the Charlotte Department of Transportation.

City Manager Marcus Jones told council members that the shortfall in the funding sprang from costs estimates the county provided for portions of greenways it has constructed, largely on less developed sites. But the city portion of the Cross Charlotte Trail will be much more costly, because it largely involves building in areas that are already fully developed.

“There was an extrapolation of the county and what it cost per-mile to build their pieces of the trail,” said Jones. “There’s a bit of a flaw there. Because much of the section that we’re talking about, it’s not so easy to replicate that when you have clear open space vs. what we’re trying to do...It is significantly more than what we have now.”

“The interim solution may not be the best,” said Jones. “It is not the original trail.”

Ed Barnhart, president of Greenways for Mecklenburg, said separating bikers and walkers from cars with dedicated paths is the safest solution for new paths.

“These trails are extremely popular, and getting more popular all the time,” said Barnhardt. “Greenways are the best, because they’re totally separate. They’re purely for pedestrians, bicyclists and non-motorized vehicles...It is a pure safety issue.”

“We need to do better. I think elected officials realize that,” said Barnhart. “They need to be expeditious about it.”

Winston said the interim plan consists of “Putting signs on streets that say ‘Now this is the Cross Charlotte Trail.’” He questioned whether the City Council should move forward with the partial plan as it stands now.

“We can’t keep piecing this together. I don’t think this should be brought up to us unless we have a plan for the full trail,” said Winston. “It seems like we’ve gotten ourselves into a real sticky situation.”

Council member Ed Driggs said he wanted to avoid the city continuing and creating an “unusable half-finished trail.”

“I just don’t know what to do with this information,” he said of the city staff’s presentation. “I’m just uncomfortable. I kind of feel like I’m a party to a misrepresentation to the taxpayers.”

Council member Larken Egleston said the ongoing redevelopment along the Blue Line extension offers a chance to get developers to help cover the cost of unfunded segments.

“I think there will be a lot more opportunities in that corridor to gain trail through development and with developer assistance,” he said. “That’s the logical piece for us, to wait on some of those partners.”

While City Council members were caught off-guard by the funding gap, Lyles said Jones did bring up the funding shortfall in a “brief conversation” last spring.

Lyles said the city must now figure out what to do moving forward, and how to adjust its plans to account for the higher costs.

“I think it’s a valid conversation to say we’ve got these bonds, here’s what we can do, but is it what we want to do?” she said. “Our money certainly isn’t going to go that far. It’s not.”

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Ely Portillo covers local and state government for the Charlotte Observer, where he has previously written about growth, crime, the airport and a five-legged puppy. He grew up in Maryland and attended Harvard University.
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