Thursday, December 15, 2011

Why Charlotte needs that 'noose' study

As expected, the Charlotte City Council on Monday approved the measure to allow a study of the uptown loop and all its interchanges. As I wrote in Time to neuter that noose around uptown Charlotte? the idea to put a cap onto part of Interstate 277 (leaving the highway there, but creating usable space above it) has been proposed since at least 1997.

During discussions for the Center City 2020 Vision Plan, the idea was broached of converting the section of the loop at the north end of uptown into a boulevard, although the final plan only recommended further study.

I checked with Charlotte Department of Transportation's manager of planning and design, Norm Steinman, about the I-277/I-77 study. He pointed out that the study which might or might not end up making recommendations for a freeway cap or boulevardization is needed for a more essential reason. It's been at least 40 years since the I-277 loop was designed, with its early alignment concepts more than 50 years old. "Obviously," he said in an email, "a lot of growth has happened since then." The NCDOT and the Federal Highway Administration essentially have said no more changes can happen to any of the I-277 interchanges without a study.

"For the first time in 50 years we're taking a look at what should be done," Steinman told me.

I have in my possession a copy of the 1960 master highway transportation plan for the city of Charlotte, prepared by Wilbur Smith and Associates. It shows the route for I-77 and for a loop around uptown a lot like what eventually opened in the 1980s. (It also shows the Independence Boulevard Freeway, which remains unfinished. Gee.)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The huge significance of the Red Line proposal

MOORESVILLE – "Revolutionary is not too strong a word for plans being laid out today to a room full of government officials, consultants and interested laypeople. We're at a "summit" to discuss ideas for reviving a long-stalled proposal to build a commuter rail line to Iredell County.

For starters, the plan involves regional cooperation. Second, the current public money crunch has forced a creative new way of thinking about transportation financing.

Even for a region that's had plenty of regional "discussions" for decades, what's being proposed is a major leap forward for working across county boundaries. The complicated proposal depends, in part, on seven governmental bodies agreeing to form a new legal entity, called a joint powers authority. Members would be Mecklenburg and Iredell counties, and Charlotte, Huntersville, Cornelius, Davidson and Mooresville.(The JPA wouldn't have taxing authority.)

Not since the great Mecklenburg annexation/spheres of influence agreements of the 1980s and the formation of the Mecklenburg-only Metropolitan Transit Commission in the 1990s have so many local governments been asked to come to a formal, legal agreement of this sort. And this time the agreement must cross county lines. That's a rare proposition around here, where crossing the county line can put you into a place with an entirely different political culture, and where most of the counties outside Mecklenburg harbor, if not fear, then at least wariness of Charlotte's behemoth footprint.

But if there's to be any hope of prudently guiding this huge and sprawling metro region away from financially unsupportable growth, it's going to have to come with a large dose of inter-county cooperation. The choices at hand are these: Cooperate, and continue to progress? Or maintain geographic silos and find the region bypassed by other, more cooperative metro regions?

Monday, December 12, 2011

Time to neuter that noose around uptown Charlotte?

Is Charlotte finally making a move toward taming the uptown noose I mean, the uptown loop? The freeway encircling uptown, made up of Interstate 277 and a section of Interstate 77, strangles uptown, eliminating easy pedestrian and bicycle connections and creating bottlenecks for traffic flow into and out of the center city.

It was Feb. 15, 1997, (but who's counting?) when I first heard the idea to cap the below-grade section of I-277 between South End and the south part of the center city. The idea keeps being proposed, and being dismissed as too expensive, or too difficult. But it's a great idea that deserves serious study.

Now, at last, something may be happening. The Charlotte City Council tonight is supposed to vote on an agreement with the N.C. Department of Transportation to launch a study of the whole uptown freeway loop. Here's a link to the city council agenda. Go to agenda page 19.

Despite misgivings, capping a freeway, or more precisely, sending it through a tunnel, is comparatively inexpensive and has been done in many other cities. It's neither revolutionary nor extreme.  It is NOT as expensive as digging a tunnel, a la Big Dig in Boston. The digging took place years ago, before I-277 opened in the 1980s.

Other cities are going further, pushing to turn old freeways into high-volume boulevards, which can move plenty of traffic but are designed so that shops, restaurants, housing and workplaces can grow along their sidewalks. The classic example of a high-volume boulevard is the Champs Elysees in Paris. Here's a list of other projects, some still in planning phases.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Charlotte transit plan makeover goes beyond cosmetic surgery

The stalled-for-years proposal to build a commuter rail line from downtown Charlotte north to the booming suburban towns of Huntersville, Cornelius, Davidson and Mooresville is getting a significant makeover, not just cosmetic surgery. The state and local officials involved are looking to find funding with freight-oriented development, a sort of cousin to the more widely recognized transit-oriented development (a.k.a. TOD).

The project has been stalled because it hasn't qualified for federal funding, which typically pays half the cost of a transit line. After years of patiently sitting by, towns in northern Mecklenburg County and Mooresville in Iredell County formed the Lake Norman Transportation Commission, which succeeded in kick-starting a fresh look at the so-called Red Line (which honors the Davidson College school color).

A Wednesday meeting of the Metropolitan Transit Commission heard a detailed presentation of the financing plans. I couldn't make it, but here are several looks at the presentation: The Charlotte Business Journal's Erik Spanberg "Red Line rolls toward 2012 vote"  and's Christina Ritchie Rogers' "Homeowners won't see tax hike in Red Line plans, consultants say."

Here's a link to the various presentations and handouts from the MTC meeting.

Nothing's been decided yet, of course. The Lake Norman Transportation Commission will hold a four-hour summit on the proposal Dec. 13 in Mooresville (10 a.m.-2 p.m. at the Charles Mack Citizens Center, 215 N. Main St.).