Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Skywalkers, Luke or otherwise, and the problems they cause for cities

People fill a plaza at the Mint Museum in Uptown Charlotte. In many cities overstreet skywalks are blamed for taking too many people off the sidewalks.  Photo: John Chesser
Uptown Charlotte is not alone in having a series of overstreet walkways that keep pedestrians off the streets and in so doing, damage (by splitting up) the potential customer base for uptown retail.

As pointed out in this Associated Press article in Salon, "Cities face new urban problem: their own skywalks," points out, "a debate is growing over what to do with the cozy corridors, bridges and tunnels that have helped create urban ghost towns."

Cincinnati dismantled half of its system. Baltimore took down seven bridges. Other cities are questioning them.

Charlotte imported its idea from Minneapolis in the 1960s, when suburban expansion and white flight were in full flower. In the 1960s and '70s the city bus stops were along uptown sidewalks, so the sidewalks were crowded with bus riders, many of them people of color.  The overstreet walkways went from white-collar office to white-collar office. Hence an informal segregation took root.

Today of course you see people of all races both on the sidewalks and in the overstreet walkways. The Transportation Center is where people wait for the buses, in a covered facility with seating. And I must disclose that I, too, sometimes take the overstreet walkways when the weather is particularly nasty.

Many urban planners don't like the skywalks, but ... too bad! The city of Charlotte gave away the air rights over its public streets to the corporations building the office towers, which wanted to connect them to other towers or to parking decks. In general they have 99-year leases. For a brief time in the 1990s the city planning department tried to discourage new skywalks. But planners were no match for the pressure from the banks formerly known as First Union and NationsBank and others who were building tall towers.

So it appears we'll be skywalking in Charlotte for at least another half-century.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

About that greener-looking grass in S.C. roads program

In Charlotte, a lot of local officials in the transportation world have cast envious eyes over the state line into South Carolina, where counties can enact sales taxes specifically for road projects. (No, I don't know whether, for this program, "transportation" includes transit or bike-ped or only pavement for motor vehicles.) York County, just over the line south of Charlotte, almost 20 years ago was the first S.C. county to levy a one-penny sales tax on a program called "Pennies for Progress." Several other counties have adopted similar taxes with similar names.

Over the years, multiple Charlotte and N.C. business leaders or transportation honchos have said, in essence, "See, if only we could levy a small sales tax for roads we could do what York County does. They get millions to use on highways and roads, and it all works out great."

Well, maybe not so great.  Turns out there have been major cost overruns, or maybe lowball cost estimates, or both.  A citizen panel found cost overruns totaling more than $100 million and has just warned that unless the program improves it risks losing the fourth round of funding, which requires voter approval and which is set for 2017.  The three previous referendums were in 1997, 2003 and 2011.

Sometimes the green grass over on the other side of the line is a little ragged when you look at it up close.