Thursday, September 29, 2011

Charlotte's transit plans due for a make-over?

It appears some basic assumptions about Charlotte's transit lines may be about to change.

One: The North Corridor transit line (formerly the Purple Line but now the Red Line) will be commuter rail on a little-used Norfolk Southern rail right-of-way leading from uptown to Mooresville in Iredell County.

Two: The Southeast Corridor (a.k.a. the Silver Line) will run down the center of Independence Boulevard from uptown to the Levine Campus of Central Piedmont Community College in Matthews. It's going to be bus rapid transit. Or maybe rail. In 2006 the Metropolitan Transit Commission agreed that BRT was the preferred alternative but it would wait at least five years to see if light rail made more sense by then.

But the governing body for transit in Mecklenburg County, the Metropolitan Transit Commission, heard two reports Wednesday night that contemplate changing both those assumptions. (My posting on the Red Line proposal. And my posting on the Silver Line proposal.) The MTC hasn't voted yet on either, but the discussion and questions didn't point to huge disagreements – at least not openly.

The problems, of course, stem from the MTC's diminished expectations for money. It can't afford to build and operate all five transit lines first envisioned in the mid-1990s.

The problem is especially acute for the Red Line, which has beaucoup ardent supporters in the north Mecklenburg towns of Huntersville, Cornelius and Davidson, who point out that the line is pretty much shovel-ready. Except for that pesky money thing. The new idea is borne of a strong push from the North Meck towns, who pooled their money and created the Lake Norman Transportation Commission, with former Charlotte Chamber CEO Carroll Gray as director. They've been strategically pushing political buttons and have succeeded in getting the attention of the N.C. Department of Transportation, among others.

Basically, they're looking for a strategy that will help find funding to make up for the lack of federal funding, which originally had been expected to pay 25 percent of the costs.

The new strategy: Position the rail line as "economic development," not just "carrying passengers." Be open to partnering with freight operations, which opens up new potential lending and other strategies. It's not "commuter rail," per se, but "rail."  You've heard of TOD – transit-oriented development? Wednesday night there was talk of FOD – freight-oriented development.

For the Silver Line, the problem is also funding. This Southeast Corridor has been contentious. The vocal and organized neighborhood groups in East Charlotte have not been keen on the concept of any form of bus transit. Bus routes haven't been shown to perk up development the way rail does, although BRT supporters note that a fixed bus way is different from a changeable bus route on city streets. Hence the maybe-bus-maybe-rail position of the MTC.

But, as I and others have written, expecting any form of transit along Independence Boulevard to spark much pedestrian-friendly, close-knit transit-oriented development means closing your eyes to the reality of Independence. It's a freeway that barrels through miles of highway-oriented, suburban strip development.  Unless someone plans to bulldoze miles of buildings and rebuild from the dirt up – which no one does, due to expense and the sheer impracticality of that notion – it's not going to be in the same universe as "walkable" for many generations to come.

A group from the nonprofit Urban Land Institute studied Indy Boulevard last year and recommended scrapping, for good, the idea of light rail down its median.  You wouldn't get much development anyway, the ULI panel said.  Instead, focus on the proposed Central Avenue streetcar and add a streetcar down Monroe Road as well. Since that proposal, a task force has been meeting and it's recommending similarly.  It suggests being a tad vaguer about that Monroe Road streetcar in case some form of light rail down the CSX rail line to Matthews emerges as a possibility.

But it is suggesting the MTC "rescind the provision that reserves space in the center of the [Independence] highway." Use that space, now a high-occupancy-vehicle lane used only by buses, for a high-occupancy-toll lane to be used by buses and motorists willing to pay a toll to escape the regular Indy Boulevard congestion.

It was inevitable, of course, that the original five-corridor plans for Charlotte's transit system would evolve. In the next few months, look for some significant evolutions to take place.


Pantograph Trolleypole said...

The Cargo Oriented Development idea has been looked at in Chicago as well. CNT has done some great work in that area.

Janet Lama said...

The Metropolitan Transit Commission needs to allocate money for benches and shelters at each bus stop.

The fact that mostly low income people utilize their services seems to make this need invisible.

Some bus riders work several jobs, have to take more than one bus to and from work or doctors appointments then there's extreme weather to contend with.

Every member of this Commission should have to ride the bus for an entire day in hot and cold, wet weather.

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