Others see Charlotte as leader in transit planning

Charlotte-Mecklenburg's business, civic and government leaders worked for years to create a plan to both improve traffic flow and provide alternatives to the automobile. Then they asked voters to approve a local sales tax to fund it. In 2002 county voters passed a half-penny sales tax for transit funding, along with a $100 million road bond referendum. Now the road system is being improved, bus service is expanding, the first leg of a light rail system is carrying even more riders than expected and Charlotte-Mecklenburg has become a model for urban areas seeking to shape their own transportation future.

Maria Saporta said as much in a recent column in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It was bad enough when several of the top banks in Atlanta were gobbled up by banks in Charlotte,” she wrote. “Now Charlotte is beating Atlanta when it comes to transit and land use.”

Her assessment came after a one-day visit to Charlotte in March by 44 members of metro Atlanta's Transit Planning Board, a group of political and business leaders working to create a regional transit plan.

They talked with transportation experts, local officials and business representatives, including Natalie English, senior vice president of public policy for the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce. Ms. English said the business community understands that companies elsewhere won't consider coming to cities with major traffic problems. “Charlotte will not fall off the list because we are not addressing our infrastructure needs,” she told the visitors.

The visit prompted Sam Olens, chairman of the Atlanta Regional Commission and Cobb County Commission chairman, to draw this conclusion: “We are letting a city that historically has been way behind us gain ground quickly on us. I've spent enough time watching. I want to DO.”

Charlotte-Mecklenburg's do-something attitude seems contagious. In Raleigh, Triangle mayors and legislators are promoting a proposal that would allow Triangle voters to consider implementing a half-cent sales tax similar to Mecklenburg's. The (Raleigh) News & Observer reports that proceeds from the tax could cover more than half the cost of a 27-year, $8.2 billion rail-bus plan proposed by a three-county citizen advisory panel.

Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker commented, “In terms of our competition, Charlotte has moved ahead on regional transit, and we in the Triangle are far behind. It will affect our economic development over time.”

The most important reward for Charlotte-Mecklenburg's transportation plan is its benefits for people here. But the recognition by civic and political leaders elsewhere feels pretty good, too.