Politics & Government

Plan to address $77 million Cross Charlotte Trail funding gap involves paint on roads

Charlotte faces a difficult choice on how to move forward with the troubled Cross Charlotte Trail: Build what’s funded now and figure out how to finish the rest later, or push to build different segments now and risk delays that could stretch for years and leave big chunks unfinished.

A majority of council members said they support the first option, which could leave northeast Charlotte with bike lanes painted on the streets instead of a finished greenway for an indefinite length of time.

“It’s unfortunate,” said Greg Phipps, whose district covers much of the unfunded trail segment. “I’m disappointed by it, but it makes sense.”

Engineer Mike Davis said city staff also recommend building what’s funded now.

“You can take the funding you have and re-prioritize ... or you can take the funding you have and build the three segments that are most construction-ready,” said Davis. If City Council opted to try to reshuffle funding, Davis warned planning would take years and push back construction by at least two to three years.

Earlier bond issues, approved by voters, provided $38 million for the trail. But that will only be enough to complete about 18 miles, running from Pineville to NoDa, and will leave almost 10 miles of the trail in northeast Charlotte, from NoDa to UNC Charlotte, unfinished.

City Council members said they were stunned last month to learn that the project has barely a third of the funds required to complete it and is more than $77 million short of the estimated total needed to complete the trail. City staff didn’t offer new funding sources to close that gap at a meeting Monday night, frustrating some on council.

“How is what you’re presenting to us tonight different than what you presented last month?” asked Braxton Winston.

The Cross Charlotte Trail was meant to be one of the city’s signature projects, running 26 miles from Pineville through uptown to UNC Charlotte and connecting with other trails in the county, for a total of 40 miles of continuous, connected greenways for pedestrians and bicyclists. City planners envisioned people using the trail for commuting and recreation, and saw it as a project that would help Charlotte keep up with peer cities that are investing more in their own urban greenways.

City staff is now recommending that Charlotte go ahead and complete the southern portion of the trail, which could be finished by 2021. A short portion of the trail in NoDa could also run along the Blue Line Extension, while Matheson Avenue to Craighead could be built via partnering with developers.

The majority of the northern portion would be temporarily established through new signage and bicycle lanes — called a “bike boulevard” — on existing streets, to designate a route in the unfinished area between Craighead and Rocky River roads as the Cross Charlotte Trail. City Manager Marcus Jones said a bike boulevard will provide a temporary solution while the city works to plan how to finish the trail.

“In two years, we could get all of this connectivity, but it wouldn’t stop us from trying to move forward,” said Jones. “In the coming months, we’re absolutely going to ask for design money.”

The city would continue to evaluate the costs of finishing the 26-mile complete trail and try to find funding sources. The northern segments are planned but not designed, while two additional miles north of UNC Charlotte haven’t been planned at all.

“It’s all visual. It’s not physical infrastructure,” said council member Larken Egleston, who said he supports the “bike boulevard” as an interim solution. “I don’t want anybody to think we’re saying this is what you’re getting and this is it. It needs to be a Band-Aid solution.”

City of Charlotte

There was little enthusiasm among council members for that idea at last month’s meeting. In addition to not actually building the trail as a dedicated path, it would present the problem of leaving a finished greenway through wealthier, whiter neighborhoods in south Charlotte, while neighborhoods such as Hidden Valley in northeast Charlotte were left with signs on sidewalks.

The southern section was selected to be finished first because there were already the most miles of trail completed there, such as Little Sugar Creek Greenway, that could simply be linked.

Poor greenway budgeting, planning

Jones blamed the situation on poor budgeting that was done without the benefit of firm estimates when the project was conceived more than six years ago, as well as the rising cost of land and construction during the current boom. The city’s previous practice was to do rough estimates of a project’s total cost, secure City Council approval, then do detailed scoping and engineering work to get a true cost estimate.

That approach backfired badly with the Cross Charlotte Trail: Jones said the city used cost estimates from Mecklenburg County for the per-mile funding needed to build greenway segments. Those estimates turned out to be wildly low, because the cost of building in densely built up areas inside city limits is higher than building on undeveloped sites in the county’s outlying areas.

About $50 million worth of unanticipated costs have popped up in recent years for projects besides the Cross Charlotte Trail that suffered from similar budgeting problems, Jones said. For example, the new joint communications center for emergency responders needed an additional $20 million over its previously approved $86 million budget.

Although the fact that more than $38 million would be required to complete the Cross Charlotte Trail had been disclosed before — in references to “additional funds” being needed in earlier presentations and the trail’s master plan — City Council didn’t understand the full scope of the funding shortfall. Jones said the plan was scanty from the beginning.

“I’m not sure I would have called it a master plan,” said Jones. “The master plan basically says it’s going to be very difficult to build the northern portion.”

Council member Dimple Ajmera said building just the southern segments for now leaves out neighborhoods that already lack access to greenways and trails. The city should fulfill its obligation to voters who approved bonds for a comprehensive trail through the whole city.

“We are in the business of equity,” said Ajmera. “We’re building this because it’s easier than what was promised.”

Mayor Vi Lyles said it’s important for the city to start moving forward with the trail, however.

“We have to show the voters something they approved will be done before we can’t do anything,” said Lyles. “These are going to be some very hard decisions for us.”

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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.