Monday, December 12, 2016

The ever-present dilemma of paying for transit

The topic of transit – or the lack of it – arose during public hearings on the vast new River District development that won city approval last month. The almost 1,400-acre development will grow west of the Charlotte Douglas International Airport in what today is a rural and thinly settled area.

The development is expected to generate 120,000 vehicle trips a day. That number got the attention of Charlotte City Council members, who talked about transit but did little beyond talk before approving the developers' rezoning request.  That's because the city's plans for transit to that part of town are, for now, vague and – like most of the 2030 Transit Plan beyond the Blue Line Extension – unfunded.

The city isn't allowed to impose impact fees without state legislative approval. And don't hold your breath for that. Further, state courts struck down some counties' attempts at adequate public facility ordinances – where developers either had to wait until local governments could afford to offer public facilities such as classrooms and police/fire service to serve the new development, or pay a fee to help the local government provide them.

So Charlotte can't do what Sacramento, Calif., is proposing: a transportation impact fee on most new construction to fund
more and wider streets and improve biking and pedestrian facilities. See Sacramento asks developers to open wallets to keep city streets from clogging. (The Sacramento fee would range from a few hundred dollars for some rental units to more than $2,000 per single-family home in some areas. It's expected to generate about $3 million a year.

But N.C. local governments still have negotiating power. In Charlotte, developments expected to generate a lot more motor vehicle trips have to pay for a traffic impact study, and talks between city planners and developers often produce a "voluntary" agreement for the developer to provide a turn lane or a traffic signal or some such. That's called an "exaction," although developers joke it's more of an "extraction."

As I listened at the River District public hearing in October, I wondered whether the city could put some transit funding on that list of negotiated agreements. It's fairly routine for the city to ask for, and get, a slightly upgraded bus stop, generally a concrete pad to bus riders don't have to stand in the mud in wet weather. But why not expand the menu for those asks, especially for a development expected to generate 120,000 trips in a part of town not built for that much traffic?

The city has a fee-in-lieu mechanism for its tree ordinance. Could there be something similar for transit needs?

Would that solve the cavernous funding gap between our local transit plans and our local transit revenue from the countywide half-cent sales tax? No. But it would help – and it would instill into local practice the idea that transit should be among those things developers could "volunteer" to assist with.