Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Cool 1945 map shows plenty of passenger rail into uptown Charlotte

In the category of "Found while looking up other stuff" I came across this amazing map of 1945 Charlotte, and all the passenger and freight rail lines that fed uptown. It's from a 1945 Chamber of Commerce brochure, and you can find it, too, on the website of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission.

It's a little difficult to tell from the cute drawing how many of those rail lines carried passengers as well as freight, but the Piedmont and Northern to Gastonia was an electrified passenger rail - today we'd call it commuter rail.

The line is still used. It runs west and northwest from uptown Charlotte near the NFL stadium, through the Wesley Heights neighborhood, then crosses the Catawba River and goes through Mount Holly, Belmont and into Gastonia. The N.C. Department of Transportation owns much of the right-of-way, except for an important segment beyond Wesley Heights and the river, which is owned by CSX. (See final paragraph of this report.)

The old Southern Railway passenger terminal was on West Trade near what's now the Greyhound Bus station, but it was demolished years ago. The 1895 Seaboard Air Line depot, between North Tryon and North College streets - depicted on the 1945 map as S.A.L. RR now the Urban Ministry Center.

Rail junkies may enjoy this 2008 map of the N.C. rail lines, which lists ownership of the segments.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

A chat with the godfather of Charlotte's streetcar

Driver Danny McQueen on Tuesday, awaiting a carload of dignitaries to launch Charlotte's streetcar. The historic replica streetcars now in use would be replaced during the expansion phase with modern streetcars. Photo: Mary Newsom
Before Tuesday morning's ribbon-cutting that launched Charlotte’s new streetcar, it seemed appropriate to check in with Ron Tober. It was Tober who originally proposed adding the streetcar to the larger transit plan for Charlotte. One might even dub him the godfather of the streetcar idea.

Tober was the Charlotte Area Transit System CEO from 1999 to 2007 – the longest-serving CATS chief to date.  The original transit plan, crafted before the 1998 voter referendum that OK’d a transit sales tax, did not include a streetcar. It roughly sketched five corridors: South (now the Lynx Blue Line), North (the still unfunded commuter rail to Mooresville), Northeast (being built as the Blue Line Extension), Southeast (envisioned running roughly down Independence Boulevard), and West possibly to the airport and possibly not.

Other than the South corridor, where the city already owned rail right of way, and the proposed extension to the northeast, it was left unclear in those early days which corridors would get bus rapid transit and which would get light rail. That did not sit well with east and west Charlotte neighborhood championswho clamored for rail service, not bus rapid transit.

In 2004, Tober proposed a streetcar to connect east and west Charlotte. It would run in rails along Beatties Ford Road, through uptown, and out Central Avenue to Eastland Mall, which at that time was open, he reminded me Tuesday morning. The streetcar idea was adopted into the 2006 transit plan update.

Some background: The newly opened 1.5-mile streetcar segment is not funded with the county’s half-cent sales tax for transit. That money goes to the Blue Line, the Blue Line Extension and to run the bus system. Not enough revenue has come in to pay to build more of the 2030 transit plan. (See New CATS chief faces funding questions.) The first streetcar leg was built with a $25 million federal grant and $17 million in funds from the city of

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Highways - loosening our collective belts

The first vehicles drive down the final leg of I-485, June 5. Photo: Nancy Pierce
Even as the national discussion turns toward whether we are overbuilding highways, based on inflated state traffic numbers, in North Carolina those questions are rarely heard. Last month the state's largest city, Charlotte, population 800,000, where I live and work, saw the June 5 opening of the final leg of its loop highway.  It's called Interstate 485 but it doesn't touch another state, or even another county.

When the road was first discussed in the 1960s, the idea was to open more land for development, because in these parts, the growth-is-good mindset has not had much nuance to it. While the local news media saw headlines such as Last I-485 segment will be boon to locals, we at the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, where I work and direct the PlanCharlotte.org website, decided to look deeper.

We've published some interactive maps that show just how much of the county's development has been shaped by the outerbelt highway here. A couple of images are reproduced below but find the interactive and zoomable versions at this link.

 In coming weeks we'll map population growth and traffic counts at the interchanges.

Obviously this is a fast-growing metro area, and growth was going to arrive regardless of where we put our freeways. The questions were: Where was the growth going to go? Can the highway capacity keep up with the demand created by the new development?

 The answer to the first question is now obvious. The growth flooded to the highway, leapfrogging closer in areas that even today lack for investment.  Would even more growth have leapfrogged into adjacent counties without I-485, or would the lack of the highway access have kept the development closer to the core? Who could tell?

The answer to the latter question remains unclear, although I certainly have my doubts. Even before the final link of the loop opened June 5, last December the first leg of the highway, which opened in the 1990s, was expanded from two to three lanes each direction, at a cost of $83 million.

It's still clogged.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Another lesson from Caro: the importance of robust local news coverage

One less obvious lesson of Robert Caro's The Power Broker (which I wrote about last week) is about the value of old-fashioned, shoe-leather local reporting in exposing corruption. Several of his most powerful sections recounted the neighborhood deterioration caused by the Gowanus Expressway and the blatantly destruction to families and the Bronx from the Cross-Bronx Expressway. His anger at the lack of on-the-ground news reporting from the multiple New York newspapers of the time seemed to leap off the pages at me.

Today, in my city of Charlotte, local news reporting is a fading art, because of the destruction of the revenue base for city newspapers all over the country.  Worry, if you want, about the New York Times (which back in the day appears to have ignored most of what Caro was writing about), but I worry a lot more about the hundreds of newspapers in cities like Charlotte, Raleigh, Portland, Charleston (which just won a Pulitzer), Kansas City, Fort Worth, Biloxi, Cleveland and so forth. If you live in one of those places, it's your local newspaper that has aspired to cover the community well and in-depth. (Are they perfect? Of course not. But who else is better positioned to noticing what is happening on the ground, and following a story that takes months or years to ooze along and that includes no murders or car wrecks? TV reporters? Please.)

Digital news significantly lowers the entry-cost for a news operation. No presses, no paper, no delivery. For years now, conventional wisdom among the chattering classes who observe the news media has been that hyper-local news sites have a built in audience and a built-in revenue base, if they can offer good content and their community is affluent enough.

Last week, a couple of excellent hyper-local, online news operations near Charlotte folded. Davidsonnews.net and its sister Corneliusnews.net covered their communities with serious, well-reported journalism. The community of Davidson, home to Davidson College, predates its surrounding suburban communities and possesses a historic and specific sense of itself as a "place," not just a suburb. The founder and editor, David Boraks, knew his communities and knew his business.  They are affluent places with plenty of disposable income. But online advertising was not sufficient to pay reporters -- even reporters of the species so familiar to journalism: young, inexperienced, smart and energetic. He did not pay himself much, if anything.

If a freeway were destroying a neighborhood in Davidson, Boraks and his staff would have been write there, chronicling it.

He folded. Online advertising and reader donations (he never put up a pay-wall) did not bring in enough money, even after nine years.

Traditional in-print newspapers have seen serious declines in advertising revenue, which has been their major income stream.  Online advertising has not picked up the slack. The Charlotte Observer has seen round after round of layoffs and buyouts, as have most newspapers in the nation.

If he were alive today, I'm fairly sure Robert Moses would be delighted at this turn of events. 

Friday, May 29, 2015

More lanes in Houston, and longer traffic times

Here's a great example to buttress the point I made earlier today, in "Highways, congestion and a power broker's lessons." Which was this: Since at least the 1930s planners have known that adding highway lanes does not reduce congestion, but rather counter-intuitively seems to increase it.

As reported by Thursday by Angie Schmitt in Streetsblog.net,  a Houston Tomorrow analysis of driving time on the I-10 Katy Freeway found it took 51 percent more time to get from downtown to Pin Oak on the newly expanded, 23-lane freeway than it did in 2011 right after the new lanes opened. An expansion project that ended in 2010 cost $2.8 billion-with-a-B which was $1.17 billion-with-a-B more than its original price tag.

Coincidence: The Federal Highway Administration's 2012 list of projects that details the cost of the Katy Freeway also lists the Monroe Bypass, with a due date of 2016. Better get hopping on that one, guys. Or better yet, don't.

Jay Crossley of Houston Tomorrow concludes: "Traveling out I-10 is now 33% worse - almost 18 more minutes of your time - than it was before we spent $2.8 billion to subsidize land speculation and encourage more driving."

Highways, congestion and a power broker's lessons

Frontispiece of The Power Broker maps Moses' roads, bridges, parks and playgrounds. 
The headline in this morning's newspaper could not have been more appropriate for the day I have to, at long last and reluctantly, return to the UNC Charlotte library my copy of Robert A. Caro's The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York.

I checked it out in September 2013. It's roughly the size of a cinder block and just as heavy, and the librarians graciously let me keep renewing it, since apparently no one else wanted the tome. Which is sad. Published in 1974, it should be required reading for anyone studying public administration, transportation, planning, urban studies, political science, sociology and journalism. I finally finished it a few months ago but after so long it felt almost like a family pet and I didn't want to part with it.

The headline today: N.C. DOT says Monroe Bypass construction has started. The article by Steve Harrison notes a lawsuit over the project is still active, and it could well be stopped for a second time.

As it happens, one of Robert Moses' faithful techniques for getting money for his projects was to start work on them

Friday, April 17, 2015

N.C. transportation funding: 'If you're not at the table, you're on the menu'

A Charlotte light rail station
If you were at the Charlotte Chamber's 2015 Transportation Infrastructure Summit this morning, you got two pointed lectures. The first, from N.C. Rep. Bill Brawley, R-Mecklenburg, was about dealing effectively with the N.C. General Assembly.

The background: North Carolina's transportation dollars aren't keeping up with needs. This is true whether you'd prefer new light rail and no roads, or new roads and no light rail, or whether you're thinking about ports, aviation and ferries. (Wonkish but important point: North Carolina doesn't have "county roads." Roads are either state- or city-maintained (or private).The state has a larger role in road-building and maintenance than in some other states.)

The gas tax, intended to support state transportation needs, is not keeping up, because people are driving less and driving more fuel-efficient cars, and transportation projects today are more expensive than in decades past.

For cities like Charlotte, growth and congestion mean more voters and businesses want mass transit as well as expanded roads. But the General Assembly today is dominated by Republicans who are more likely to represent rural or suburban districts. Here's Brawley's advice:

"Whenever you do anything to raise money for transportation ... you make people mad," he said. In that atmosphere, it's important to try to build a statewide consensus on funding before you even approach politicians. But when Charlotte comes to Raleigh seeking money for transportation projects, he said, "Charlotte comes with Charlotte-specific projects.They don't talk about the state as a whole. They don't work on building support with the state as a whole." In other words -- and this is my wording here -- act like you care about more than Charlotte.

His final words: "In Raleigh, if you're not at the table, you're on the menu."

The second lecture was even stronger. Former U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood (whose successor is former Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx) would have pounded the table if he'd had a table to pound. "Transportation infrastructure is at a crossroads. It's at a standstill," he said. "It's at a crisis."

"The long rich history of our country ... is about being No. 1 in transportation and infrastructure," he said. "We're not No. 1 in infrastructure any more. We're No. 16."

 "America is one big pothole!" he all but shouted. "Because we haven't invested. We haven't fixed up our roads."

As he's done for months -- years, really -- LaHood, a Republican from Peoria, Ill., pushed the idea of raising the federal gas tax 10 cents a gallon, and indexing it to the cost of living. The tax has not been raised since 1993.

"We need to bit the bullet," he said. "Voters are not going to vote you out of office if you fix a big problem"