Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Transit chief: P3s help but won't solve transit funding woes

Sharon Road West station on Charlotte's light rail line. Photo: Nancy Pierce
The idea of using public-private partnerships to help fund transportation systems, including mass transit, is one of today's hottest topics in transportation policy circles. But the head of Atlanta's MARTA cautions that P3s, as they're known, aren't a silver bullet for transit systems.

Keith Parker, who headed Charlotte's transit system 2007-2009 and since 2012 has been MARTA CEO, was in town Tuesday, as a rail conference was kicking off. Parker spoke at a small event organized by the Transit Funding Working Group, a Metropolitan Transit Commission committee that's been pondering how CATS can move forward despite huge gaps between the 2030 plan and available money to built it out.

The working group has studied P3s, and a P3 conference was held here in March. In transportation, public-private partnerships are being used for bridges, tunnels, toll roads and High-Occupancy-Toll lanes such as the new HOT lane planned for Interstate 77 north of Charlotte. A private company, Cintra, has contracted with the N.C. Department of Transportation to build the lane and use the toll revenue to operate it. In Vancouver, a P3 built one of the region's rail lines.

P3s are touted as a way to get around a growing national problem of too many transportation needs and too little tax revenue to pay for them. With cars' gas mileage increasing, a decrease in driving among young people, and a national gas tax that's not been raised since 1993 and isn't indexed for inflation, trend lines for transportation funding are heading down.

In Atlanta, Parker has won praise for helping improve MARTA's relationships with the Georgia legislature and for bringing efficiencies to MARTA operations. And next week may see the first expansion of the system since it was launched 42 years ago in Fulton and DeKalb counties. A referendum is set for Nov. 4 in Clayton County, Ga., asking voters there whether to approve a 1-cent sales tax to expand MARTA into their county.

Parker, who described how MARTA is partnering with developers for transit-oriented developments on MARTA-owned land, cautioned the audience about the limitations of P3s, especially for transit programs. "They don't solve your revenue issues," he pointed out. And continuing revenues are needed, as well as capital expenses for building the transit lines and stations.

He quoted a popular misconception: "If you just go to the private sector they'll build all your trains for you."  That thinking? "It's just a myth," he said.

The Atlanta system is funded with a 1-cent sales tax in two counties. It receives no funding from the state of Georgia.  Mecklenburg County's system is funded with a half-cent sales tax in only one county.

For more on the recent transit funding challenges facing Charlotte, see "Mayor: Transit sales tax funding may be at risk" from

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Clearing the air on the Liz Hair Greenway

Liz Hair Greenway, near Carolinas Medical Center. Photo courtesy Mecklenburg Park and Recreation Department
The cloud of cigarette smoke on the Liz Hair Greenway just below Carolinas Medical Center should be clearing up shortly. If you've walked or biked the narrow pavement of that greenway between Morehead Street and East Boulevard, you've probably gone past the smokers. They're mostly visitors or staff from the hospital, which forbids smoking on its property. The greenway is handy, and sometimes the hospital security guards even point it out to smokers.

But Tuesday, Mecklenburg County commissioners passed a new ordinance that makes most government buildings and most parks in Charlotte and Mecklenburg smoke-free. (In Charlotte, the Park and Recreation Department is a county, not a city, agency.)

As a compromise from the original proposal, six county-run golf courses and 18 parks that are considered "regional parks" are exempted. So you'll still have to choke on second-hand smoke in Freedom Park, Reedy Creek Park and other regional parks.  (A list of those parks is at the end of this post.)

The problem on the Liz Hair greenway stems from both the location of the hospital and the narrowness of the greenway between Morehead Street and East Boulevard. That section was built in 1988, back when many people here considered greenways risky spending. Today, it's one of the most popular greenways as it connects Freedom Park to the new, wider and more generously landscaped Little Sugar Creek Greenway near the Metropolitan development. It's narrow and crowded, and that means greenway pedestrians and cyclists are pretty much eyeball to eyeball, and lung to lung, with smokers.

An October 2012 article in the Charlotte Observer, by Michael Gordon, described the scene this way:

"For about 20 paces of shade beneath Medical Center Drive, Charlotte's health-conscious and not-so-muches squeeze into the same county-owned space. Neither is particularly happy with the arrangement. 'Generally, I hold my breath when I come through there,' says Collette Nagy, a Charlotte writer who biked under the bridge late Sunday morning, her dog Pepper riding in a knapsack on her back. 'But I feel sorry for them. I wish they'd get unhooked. I don't think verbal abuse will help.' "

Here's how Gordon described the scene: “At times, there's very little room for all the humanity to squeeze through. Around noon, about 10 smokers and their children were sitting or standing around the bridge, as a surge of greenway users – many with their children – dodged and weaved around them. There were near-collisions and some frowns. Even in the open air, the smoke under the bridge can be thick.”

The problem of smokers even drew a mention from a Portland, Ore., visitor, on the website Trip Advisor: “Hold your breath if you cruise past Carolina Medical Center at lunch time - the staff is out smoking on the greenway.”

Regional parks where smoking will still be allowed:

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Detroit: 'Failed city' or urban upswing?

A lush urban garden in downtown Detroit.
DETROIT—Since I've been thinking of things in dualities (see "Two North Carolinas"), this trip to Detroit fits neatly into that pattern. As I was heading out of the office about 8 p.m. Monday, I ran into a high-ranking academic and civic leader returning from a reception on campus. (No, I'm not naming him because he had no idea I'd be writing about what he said.)

"What are you up to so late?" he asked. "I had things to finish 'cause I'm going out of town." "Where you going?" "Don't laugh cause I think it will be really interesting. I'm going to Detroit." "Wow, what a failed city."


That's one way to look at it, for sure. But there's another Detroit, the one where 50,000 residents took part in creating the Detroit Future City plan. The one where young entrepreneurs are creating a network of nonprofit and business startups and art projects. The one where a local foundation has brought 60 talented young innovators to town to work solving problems. Of the first class of 30, Kresge Foundation CEO Rip Rapson told us, 28 are staying in Detroit.

Rapson was the kick-off speaker at the Meeting of the Minds conference. While part of his talk was about the way Kresge and other foundations have stepped in to get Detroit on the path to survival, he was also clear that financially the city is a mess. And the problems can't be solved simply by smarter city budgeting. There are insurmountable structural problems, having to do with the tax base and some specific-to-Michigan-state-constitution realities.

(Warning, myth-busting paragraph ahead.) In case you're thinking, right about now, well it's those lavish pensions, think again. Rapson said the average pension for city police and firefighters is $31,000 and the average pension for other city employees is $19,000. Drastic cuts to those were not an option, he said.

The hotel for the conference is just around the corner from the federal courthouse in downtown Detroit. And a federal bankruptcy trial is going on this week, to determine the future of Detroit's finances.

Is Detroit a failed city? Or is it a city on the rebound? It'll take years, decades really, to learn the answer. My bet is on the rebound.  (More posts to come from Detroit, as I get time.)

Few sunbathers on a cool, cloudy September day at Detroit's Campus Martius park.