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.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Whatever do we do with Independence Boulevard?

Charlotte's "hell highway" is never referred to by that term at public meetings. But that's what it is. Tonight, the Metropolitan Transit Commission is chewing over some recommendations from a group of officials and citizens over what, really, needs to happen to the now-vintage plans for light rail down Independence.

New strategy for transit to North Meck

The Charlotte transit project getting the most attention the past four years has been extending the Lynx Blue Line from uptown to UNC Charlotte. But in recent months plenty of behind-the-curtains work has been focusing on the planned commuter rail line to north Mecklenburg. Tonight, the transit governing body heard about a significant shift in strategy for the Red Line.  The idea is to change the focus from "commuter rail" to "rail."

Friday, September 16, 2011

How voice mail and email fall short

All across America, offices have been carelessly casting one of the most valuable resources they have, and an irreplaceable service for their customers: employees like Joe Sovacool.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The fantasy land of transportation planning

The N.C. Department of Transportation is seeking people's opinions to help guide them in putting together a 2040 plan. They've launched an online survey, which you can weigh in on at this link.

I encourage you to take the survey, but if you do, you'll notice most of the questions require only one answer where several answers are needed. Example: For the question: "Which of the following is the most important to address the transportation needs of our changing population?" your choices are:
  •    Invest additional resources in public transportation (rail and buses).
  •    Expand roadways in North Carolina’s major cities.
  •    Encourage development with higher numbers of people per acre.
  •    Better coordinate transportation and land development.
  •    Other (please specify)
 You can choose only one. Which seems, to me, a bogus choice. Transportation and land use have to be coordinated or they are all but worthless. Additional resources must be invested in public transportation. And we all need to encourage development where more people live closer together the only way to make public transportation work. No one of those is more important than another.

Land use planning and transportation planning are as linked as conjoined twins. The state likes to say it doesn't do land use planning but that's a fig leaf of an excuse that doesn't hide the truth: Every time NCDOT makes a transportation decision, that decision affects land uses.

Accept that reality. Then accept the related reality that planning and transportation, to have validity, should be undertaken at a metro region level. Merge all the state-sanctioned transportation planning agencies in each of North Carolina's metro regions. Charlotte has four to seven, depending on what you count. (You gotta love their names, too: The MPOs are MUMPO, GUAMPO, CRMPO, GHMPO and RFATS. Lest you think that's not surreal enough, we also have two rural planning organizations, named LNRPO and the snarly sounding RRRPO.) We need just one, region-wide MPO.

If you're looking for true sanity, then (as I have often written before) merge all those metropolitan planning organizations (a.k.a. MPOs, which despite the name do only transportation planning) with the regional Councils of Government, which attempt a regional approach to land use planning although of course they aren't allowed to adopt zoning ordinances and thus have little clout. Has all this made Salvador Dali seem reasoned and predictable by comparison?

So have your say on the NCDOT survey.  But recognize that efforts at serious urban region planning are fantasy, until the state adopts a more realistic approach linking land use and transportation.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Bike-sharing deferred, but tax talk moves forward

Did I mention that a Charlotte City Council committee scheduled to discuss a possible bike-sharing program this afternoon was also going to talk about "finding new revenues" for roads? I believe I did.  And you don't have to be a political science professor to know elected officials won't breeze quickly through any talk of new or higher taxes.

The result: Much information about higher registration fees, new sales taxes, new toll roads and even a vehicle-miles-traveled tax. (For details, see below.) The council's transportation and planning committee voted to refer the whole topic to the council's budget committee and to urge city staff to make sure the topic comes up during the council's retreat next winter.

But no bike-sharing discussion. The committee ran out of time. That discussion is now scheduled for the committee's Oct. 10 meeting.

For transportation policy geeks and tax policy geeks (I plead guilty), the how-to-fund-it-all discussion was meaty and even, well, sort of fun. The presentation from developer Ned Curran, who chaired a 2008-09 citizen group called the Committee of 21, is here. (For details, read that PowerPoint.)  In a nutshell, the Transportation Action Plan, adopted five years ago and due for an update, lays out a series of countywide transportation improvements. The Committee of 21 concluded the gap between identified road needs and known funding sources (federal, state and local) over 25 years is $12 billion. So ... how do you find that money?

Curran, CEO of the Bissell Cos., made clear that the committee's charge was to look specifically at roads, not at other transportation modes. They looked at 19 different revenue options, such as sales tax and gas tax increases, driveway taxes, impact fees, sin taxes and even parking surcharges. (The full list is on page 6 of the presentation on the committee agenda.) They assessed the options based on how related they were to driving, how much revenue they'd produce, how easy to implement and operate, political reality, etc.

The Roads Final Four:

  1. Doubling the $30 vehicle registration tax from $30 to $60 = $18 million a year.
  2. A half-cent Mecklenburg sales tax increase for roads = $81 million. Note, that estimate was before sales tax revenues plunged in 2009. A more recent estimate would be $55 million, Charlotte Department of Transportation chief Danny Pleasant said.
  3. Tolls on all existing interstates in the county = $52 million a year. This, obviously, depends on the toll assessed and what revenue-splitting agreements would be forged with the federal and state governments. 
  4. A vehicle miles traveled (VMT) tax. Curran said this option has gotten plenty of national discussion and would likely have to take place nationally, but as federal and state gas tax revenues sink due to more efficient cars and and people driving less, the VMT tax will get more credence. Privacy concerns? "If any of us have our phones on in our car, we're being tracked anyway," Curran quipped.

As Curran and Pleasant discussed the toll roads situation, it got interesting. A multistate agreement is in the works, they said, with which other states would agree to help each other capture the cents-per-mile tolls if, say, a New York driver zipped through North Carolina on I-95 and didn't pay the tolls. New York would collect the money (how? that wasn't clear) and send it to N.C.  Meanwhile, North Carolina is one of several states applying for a program to inaugurate tolls on parts of I-95. With more tolls and more states cooperating – and with innovations such as a High Occupancy Toll lane being planned for I-77 in north Mecklenburg – pretty soon you've got a VMT anyway.

One doubter about all this: Council member Michael Barnes. "There has never been the political will among elected officials to deal with it [funding transportation]," he said. "I am tired of it." Count him among skeptics who think council members will, once again, after discussion fail to enact any specific measures to fund the city's plans for transportation.  

Bike-sharing in Charlotte - soon?

A Charlotte City Council committee today takes up the question of what should happen next if Charlotte is to have (or not) a bike-sharing program. It also takes up an even more hot-potato topic: How to pay for the city's road needs.

For those unfamiliar with the term bike-sharing, those programs have sprung up in cities all over the country, as well as in other countries. For a small fee – typically paid online – you can become a member or pay for a temporary membership. That gives you the ability to take a bicycle from a bike station, ride it for a certain number of hours and return it to another bike station

In its August meeting, the committee heard a presentation from Alta Bicycle Share, a consultant group that manages the Washington bike-sharing program known as Capital Bikeshare. (Photo courtesy of Capital Bikeshare, taken from the City of Charlotte's website.) 

If you click on the link in the first sentence of this item, you'll see that the committee agenda also holds a discussion on the sure-to-be-controversial topic of what revenue sources (read: tax or fee increase)
might be available to provide money for the Charlotte region's huge transportation needs. The agenda says "provide detailed information on a variety of potential transportation revenue sources."

The presentation will be a reprise of the recommendations from the Committee of 21, led by developer Ned Curran, which met in 2009 to look at the city's "road needs." It did not look at transit needs.  It did not look at "street" needs. None of which is to say that the city doesn't need some work on its roads. It does. But in Mary's Perfect World, we'd talk more about streets, which is what you have in a city, and less about "roads," which are what you have between cities. And we'd mostly talk about "transportation" needs, which means looking at driving, transit, bicycling and walking, i.e., the Big Picture. We need to serve all those transportation forms.

The Committee of 21 looked at a gigantic list of possible funding, including such  Big City ideas as charging a fee for driving into uptown. It rejected most of those. For instance, congestion pricing (the downtown fee) can work well where residents have plenty of good options for transportation other than driving. Charlotte is not one of those places.

Why is the Committee of 21 presenting a reprise? I asked committee chair David Howard that very thing when I chanced to run into him Saturday at the UNC Charlotte Student Union. (I was walking around campus for exercise; he was waiting for his daughter to finish an educational program on campus.) He said he asked for it to be put on the agenda, because it's a conversation the community needs to have.

The committee meets at 3:30 p.m. today in Room 280 of the Government Center.  

Friday, September 9, 2011

City pedaling and wilderness paddling

Bicycling and canoeing are kindred spirits in helping you explore your world, writes Joe Urban (a.k.a. Sam Newberg). In "Pedaling and Paddling in City and Wilderness," Newberg writes about his experience in a canoe in the northern Minnesota Boundary Waters and its perhaps not-obvious relationship to bicycling through a city: 
"Just as the paddle is an “extension of your arm” in a canoe, the bicycle is an extension of your feet, enabling harmony and oneness with the street and buildings around you. As well, a canoe can cut almost silently through water, and a bicycle slices a quiet path through urbanity."
 I shared the piece with a friend who's a retired UNC Charlotte professor who used to bicycle to campus from East Charlotte and who goes on wilderness canoeing trips each summer. He replied:
"The essay comparing canoeing and bicycling strikes a very strong chord with me.  I would rather paddle in the Boundary Waters than be anywhere else on earth, except bicycling to UNCC.  The two experiences are so similar in my basal reptilian brain that I dream about them as one thing: flying over the landscape a few feet above the surface with no visible means of support.  Jung would have fun with that."

Friday, September 2, 2011

At long, long last, a park for Romare Bearden

Bearden collage: Maudell Sleet's Magic Garden (1978)
It took years, multiple political strategies, a bond vote, patience, weathering a brutal and ongoing economic downturn, more patience, and – finally – a multimedia event under a tent on a hot asphalt parking lot. But Friday, ground was broken for a new park in uptown Charlotte: Romare Bearden Park.

It's notable for many reasons, including being the first significant honoring of  a major 20th-century artist, Bearden, who was born in Charlotte. It's also the first major public park built in the heart of uptown in years. I am not counting Polk Place at The Square because it's tiny and because I'm still hacked off that the city knocked down the oldest retail buildings downtown for a not-so-wonderful park modeled on what looks like the U.S. Northwest mountains. The late Al Rousso's fight against the city to save his store got him elected to City Council. But it didn't save his store. Nor am I counting The Green because it is private space. Lovely, but private. Just try standing and taking photos of the condos, and you may find yourself getting kicked out, as I hear happened to some architecture students.
 Romare Bearden Park is named for New York artist and Charlotte native Romare Bearden, born 100 years ago today about two blocks from the scene of Friday's ceremonies, in his great-grandparents' house at 401 S. Graham St. on the corner of what was then Second Street and is now Martin Luther King Boulevard. Bearden's parents moved North when he was a young boy, but he visited frequently and some of his later works evoke (and are named for) Mecklenburg County and the people he knew here, including Charlotte neighbor Maudell Sleet (above).

St. Michael's now-demolished church. Photo:
That "multimedia" part refers to the agenda for Friday's events. Of course you had politicians present and past, governmental officials and reading from ceremonial proclamations. But we were also treated to the choir from St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church – where Bearden was baptized. The church, founded in 1882, was formerly at South Mint and West Hill streets (where the Panthers' stadium now sits) and is the oldest traditionally African American Episcopal church in the state. (For more information about Charlotte in 1911, at the time of Bearden's birth, visit

After the pols came playwright/poet Ruth Sloane reading dramatic excerpts from her original play, "Romare Bearden 1911-1988," commissioned in 2003, and accompanied by flautist Michael Porter. Then we followed the Johnson C. Smith University drummers out to watch Mecklenburg county commissioners' chair Jennifer Roberts knock out a section of the back wall of a row of buildings that until now had, miraculously, survived on Church Street between Third Street and MLK Boulevard.

I chanced to sit next to Charlotte developer David Furman, who recalled, "When we started marketing the TradeMark [condo tower on West Trade Street] we were marketing this park." That was six or seven years ago, he said. The park site was part of a multipart, still controversial land swap deal that was expected to bring a minor league baseball stadium uptown, to a neighboring and larger parcel that was the original site for this park. That deal has been mangled by the recession and long-running lawsuits.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

But, Mayor Pat, do you back light rail?

Photo of Third Street station courtesy Charlotte Area Transit System
(See update at end, 6:30 p.m.)
Ex-CATS chief Ron Tober sends along a link to a nice little video about the Lynx Blue Line and South End. It praises the way the light rail line brings neighborhoods together, helps people move about the city without cars and builds for the future.

The film (apparently made by Siemens, hence the talking heads from that company) quotes many Charlotte notables, including Charlotte Planning Director Debra Campbell, Duke Energy's North Carolina president Brett Carter, UNC Charlotte Dean of Arts + Architecture Ken Lambla, UNCC profs David Walters and Jose Gamez, Levine Museum historian Tom Hanchett ...

... and former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory.

This is worth pointing out because McCrory, a seven-term mayor who is all but certainly running again for N.C. governor in 2012, has been a strong transit supporter. He has a national reputation for being a strong transit supporter.  That much isn't really news for politics buffs.  But here's a new wrinkle. His Republican Party in North Carolina now appears dominated by anti-transit conservatives.

During the recent General Assembly session, state legislators from Mecklenburg County made several stabs at outright killing any more state funding (and thus, any more federal funding) for Charlotte's light rail system, as well as trying to off the state's long-planned high-speed passenger rail between Charlotte and Raleigh. Last spring, McCrory said he had made calls to Republican legislative leaders about transit, but wouldn't say what he talked about.

This all leaves Mayor Pat with a dilemma.  He can continue to tout his accomplishments as a moderate, pro-transit mayor, which will help him with independents and with any Democrats who have cooled on Gov. Bev Perdue. But that would definitely rile the people now in control of the state Republican Party, not to mention many legislators. Or he can play to his right and somehow distance himself from Charlotte's nationally praised light rail system, one of his most praiseworthy achievements.

I note that on this video, McCrory doesn't say anything that might be pulled out and used as a pro-transit film clip by enemies on the right, who kicked him around a lot when he was mayor, calling him a RINO (Republican in Name Only), or even a socialist, for supporting mass transit. On the film he says innocuous things,  that cities should look to the future, and this "infrastructure" is a good investment.

(Update and rewrite, 6:25 p.m.) McCrory just phoned me back and was pointed in saying he supports mass transit "where it works." If the transportation experts and federal funding formulas say it would work in a certain place, McCrory said, then he's for it. He said he just asks, "What will the numbers look like?"

This is all consistent with his remarks as mayor. But, I asked him, a lot of N.C. Republicans oppose mass transit, so how will he handle that in his campaign? "I'll handle it exactly the same way I handled it as mayor," he said. Some Republicans won't like his answers, he said, and neither will some Democrats.

I've been wondering how McCrory, who is a deft politician, will handle this GOP-hates-transit dilemma. He's on the record now at least with Naked City Blog on mass transit. It will be in interesting political show to see how his campaign plays out on this particular issue.