Denver shows regional transit model Charlotte must follow

The Observer editorial board

Charlotte officials were impressed by Denver’s Union Station, which features transit, restaurants and a hotel.
Charlotte officials were impressed by Denver’s Union Station, which features transit, restaurants and a hotel. Ellen Jaskol Photography

More than two decades ago, Charlotte’s leaders started the conversation that brought us the Lynx Blue Line light rail system.

It wasn’t just a conversation about trains, though. It was about the region’s future. How we wanted it to grow. Transit was correctly understood as a tool for shaping development.

Nearly a decade after it opened, we can all see that the Blue Line does a lot more than move people from Point A to Point B. As promised, it shapes development, having attracted more than $1 billion in private investment to South End and other areas. Hopes are justifiably high for similar success along the $1.2 billion Blue Line Extension under construction north of uptown.

What’s less clear is what happens after that. Do we simply stop, since the half-cent sales tax that helped build the existing infrastructure can’t underwrite more light rail projects? Can the region make do with a county-by-county patchwork of transportation plans when a growing population base is straining existing systems?

We don’t think so. Local leaders saw a more promising answer last week on a fact-finding trip to Denver. They went to look at that city’s beautifully restored central train station, but came away marveling at the $4.7 billion commuter rail expansion happening all around it.

Denver needed help to do it. More than 40 Denver-area mayors backed the expansion. The area’s transit plan covers eight counties, as does the voter-approved 1-cent sales tax that underwrites the expansion.

Charlotte’s transit planners have long understood the value in a regional approach. In 1994, when they rolled out the plan that led to the Blue Line, they wanted Gaston, Cabarrus, Union and Iredell counties to join in. But those counties balked at the sales tax increase, and Mecklenburg went ahead alone.

It’s time to revisit that parting of the ways.

The challenge, as Mecklenburg commissioners chairman Trevor Fuller said during the Denver trip, is “to communicate to someone in Lincolnton why they should care” about a regional mass transit vision.

That might be easier today than in the 1990s. One study pegged Charlotte as the nation’s second-fastest growing big city from 2010 to 2013. Its growth and traffic have spilled closer to surrounding counties since then. And while we can debate the merits of transit tools such as streetcars and high-occupancy toll lanes, the Blue Line offers clear proof of the value transit can add.

The Charlotte Area Transit System is looking to refresh its 2030 plan, which envisions new mass transit corridors to join the Blue Line.

On CATS’ 2030 maps, almost all of those transit corridors stop at the Mecklenburg County line. If the region is to avoid choking on its own growth, those corridors must keep going.

We’ve seen how hard it can be to win surrounding counties’ support. It will take steady political leadership, strong business backing and a clear, persuasive argument. Denver’s example shows that’s an effort well worth making.