Monday, June 25, 2012

Bike-sharing definite, says CDOT director

I chanced to sit next to Charlotte Department of Transportation chief Danny Pleasant at this afternoon's  Charlotte City Council meeting (where the council voted against building Phase II of the streetcar, but the mayor vetoed it).

So, I asked, is Charlotte going to start a bike-sharing program or not? I was just in Paris, I said, and their program is awesome. Bicycles everywhere. What about Charlotte?

Yes, he said, we're launching one.  My follow-up: Absolutely sure? "Absolument," was his reply (in French).

The reason I was asking: A bike-sharing program has been in planning stages for weeks, after enthusiasts have pushed for one to open before the Democratic National Convention.  See: "Bike sharing in Charlotte - soon?" and "Charlotte rolls toward N.C.'s first bike-share system."  But no one yet would confirm that it really was going to happen.

Why not announce it? I asked Pleasant.  He said the city is waiting for the bike-share program's sponsor to set the publicity timetable.

Bike-sharing programs, if you're not familiar with them, are set up to let users rent bicycles short-term – for a half-hour up to a day – from one bike-share station and return them to another. Many cities have them, from Paris (see photo at right, for a fleet of to-be-rented bikes early last Sunday in Paris) to Boston to Washington to Spartanburg. Here's a piece on the remarkable success of the Velib bike-share program in Paris.

Streetcar update: Killed, but not dead yet

Charlotte City Council just voted 6-4 for a budget that doesn't include a $119 million expansion of the city's streetcar project. (See my earlier post here.)

Then Mayor Anthony Foxx vetoed that vote. What happens next? The council reconsiders the veto at its next meeting – 6:30 p.m. today. It takes 7 votes to override a veto. Council member James Mitchell is not here but he has been a streetcar supporter. Unless something changes (always possible) the streetcar is not dead yet.

Must go now; Patrick Cannon is finally saying something. He's been quiet so far.

Is a streetcar speedy? And other red herrings

Courtesy Charlotte Area Transit System
Here's the thing about the proposed Charlotte streetcar expansion, the one the City Council today is probably going to pitch from the city's five-year capital improvements plan. A streetcar is not only about speedy transportation. To judge it from that point of view is to miss the point almost entirely.

A streetcar is about economic development and trying to buttress the city's tax base. Which, let me point out, grew only about 7 percent overall 2003-2011, with a frighteningly high proportion of the city's acreage seeing declining home property values, not rising ones. (See map at end.)

That point seems to be lost amid debate about streetcar speed and the fact that it stops at traffic lights. Even my former colleagues at the Charlotte Observer's editorial board seem to be assessing the streetcar's value by whether it's faster than driving, as in Sunday's editorial, "Now is not the time to take streetcar ride,"  which pooh-poohs the proposed 2.2-mile extension of the streetcar's Phase I, a 1.5-mile segment due to start construction at the end of the year. The streetcar, it says, "would operate on regular streets, stopping for red lights and traffic congestion. It wouldn’t be faster than a bus. It would merely be a very expensive, but very pretty, bus. What the city is buying is an aesthetic."

But lost in that analysis, and in remarks by some that a streetcar is just a toy, is this: Development reacts to streetcars very differently from the way it reacts to bus routes.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Was light rail at root of odd council budget vote?

A source with good Charlotte City Council information tells me this morning it's highly likely the bizarre 6-5 City Council vote Monday night to spike the proposed city budget (but proposing no other budget, either) was related to an attempt in the N.C. Senate to kill any state funding for Charlotte's Blue Line Extension project. (Click here for more on the council's budget vote.)

The proposed Senate budget, released Monday, as reported by the N.C. Metropolitan Mayors Coalition, would cut the state's transit programs by eliminating the New Starts Program and transferring the $28.9 million to the General Maintenance Reserve. The Charlotte light rail Blue Line Extension is the only project in the New Starts Program. The budget bill specifically says public transportation appropriations shall not be expended on any fixed guideway project in Mecklenburg County. There is an additional provision that says fixed guideway projects can compete for Highway Trust Fund dollars under the equity formula.
What's the connection to the city budget? My source believes the issue is Republican opposition to the city's proposed streetcar project, which would have cost $119 million, part of the almost $1 billion, multiyear capital projects budget City Manager Curt Walton proposed. The capital program is what would have required a property tax increase of 3.6 cents per $100 in property value.

Council member Michael Barnes, a strong supporter of the BLE, which would run through his district, asked several questions during the council meeting to make Charlotte Area Transit System chief Carolyn Flowers  specify publicly that the 30-year CATS plan, funded with a countywide sales tax, does not include money for the proposed streetcar project, which would come from city money only.

My source speculates that the four council members who raised barely a peep against the budget through months of council discussion and who were part of a 9-2 straw vote for it May 30, but then voted against it Monday Barnes and at-large members Patrick Cannon, Claire Fallon and Beth Pickering will try to get the streetcar removed from the capital budget. Why? Because influential Republicans at the state level don't like it, and may be using the BLE as a bargaining chip. I won't identify whom my source named as behind it until I can get that person's comments.

And I'm seeking comment from some of those council members. Will update this when I have more information.

Friday, June 8, 2012

A new look for South Tryon Street

It's little things like this project that will add up, over time, into a much more pleasant experience for people walking into and out of uptown Charlotte from South End and Morehead Street. Here's a photo of the newly widened sidewalk on South Tryon Street on the bridge over the I-277 freeway.

It used to be a stark, back-of-curb concrete sidewalk where you had to choose whether to get uncomfortably close to traffic or uncomfortably close to the railing where you could look down and see where your body would splat if you leaned too far. (Technically, the railing would have protected you from falling, but the place still felt dangerous.)

The city of Charlotte oversaw a project to shrink the number of travel lanes, widen the sidewalks from 5 feet to 12 feet and add bike lanes. A few cosmetic improvements include changing the railing and adding pedestrian-scale street lights.

The project cost, including design, was $2 million. The bridge over I-277 is state-owned, so the Charlotte Department of Transportation worked with the state DOT, which had to approve the changes.

Here's a piece I did in 2010 about the project. You can decide for yourself whether the reality looks like the drawing that envisioned the project then.

A ribbon-cutting will be at 10 a.m. Tuesday (June 19).

Photo: Courtesy of City of Charlotte

Thursday, June 7, 2012

What's next for new greenway? Consider this ...

I popped in Tuesday to the public workshop on possible changes to the Interstate 77-Interstate 277 uptown freeway loop. (See "Changes ahead for uptown Charlotte freeway.")  As I looked over the maps and nosily read other folks comments on various sticky notes, I spotted this scrawled on a large flip chart set up for written comments:

PLEASE put greenway connecting under Independence to connect new CPCC expansion w/Cordelia Park.
A few feet away, I spotted Gwen Cook, the Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Department's greenway planner. I asked if that was her suggestion, I asked. She chuckled and confessed..

The issue is a thorny one. You can walk on the greenway all the way from behind Park Road Shopping Center through Freedom Park, past Central Piedmont Community College and up to East Seventh Street. There, the greenway is halted by a tangle of freeway ramps going under-over-around-and-through, as I-277 meets with U.S. 74 (Independence Boulevard), forcing both Seventh Street and Central Avenue onto bridges over the freeway traffic. From the Seventh Street bridge you can see Little Sugar Creek far below, except where its been forced into culverts.

But as the crow flies its just a few hundred yards (well, maybe a little more) to where the greenway picks up again at 12th Street and heads north to Cordelia Park at North Davidson Street and Parkwood Avenue. (Here's a link to the park departments greenways page, with maps.)

From what Ive been told, theres no official plan at this point for how to connect the segments.  So, I asked Cook, what would you really like to see? Her idea: Build an iconic bridge that would weave over and under the highway ramps and lanes.

I can almost see it now a visually splendid bridge soaring and swooping across the chasm of highway, with bright colors and sharp design. Other cities have found donors or tourism tax dollars to build one-of-a-kind bridges. (Click here to see the Greenville, S.C., pedestrian bridge) Below is the Santiago Calatrava-designed Sundial Bridge at Turtle Bay in Redding, Calif., built with help from a local foundation. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

No TOD for you!

Have you noticed that huge lot being cleared and graded on Woodlawn Road between Old Pineville Road and Interstate 77, about a half-mile from the light rail stop? Curious whether that part of the city is finally going to see some true-to-the-plan development designed with transit in mind, I asked city planner Kent Main what was up

Main led the Woodlawn Transit Station Area Plan process that resulted in this document, adopted in October 2008. The plan calls for Transit-Oriented Development-Employment for much of the area in the so-called Transit Station. It says: New development within the Transit Station Area should have uses, intensity, site and facade design, and transportation elements that are consistent with the Transit Station Area Principles outlined in the Introduction to South Corridor Station Area Plans. Here's a link to that document.

The station area principles document says: Transit Station Areas are higher density areas within a 1/2 mile walk of an existing or planned rapid transit station. They typically provide a mixture of pedestrian-oriented housing, employment and retail services designed to promote travel to and from them on transit.

On page 11 it goes into even more detail. Among other things, it says, development in the station areas should disallow automobile-dependent uses, such as automobile sales lots, car washes and drive-thru windows.” Further, it says, transit-oriented development in these areas should:
  • Orient buildings to front on public streets or open spaces.
  • Minimize setbacks and locate parking to the rear.
  • Provide windows and doors at street level and minimize walking distance to entrances.