Monday, March 11, 2019

Is the “economic development” tail wagging the transit dog?

Map from Charlotte Area Transit System shows current plan for the Silver Line light rail, which would be built after funding is found for it. A closer view of the west section of the route is below.
Some controversy continues over the decision by the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) to route the proposed Silver Line light rail outside of the heart of uptown Charlotte, bypassing the most convenient transfer points with the existing Blue Line. ) See “Five key takeaways from Charlotte’s newest transit plan”)

The Silver Line would run from Matthews, through uptown, out Wilkinson Boulevard to the airport and west to the Gaston County town of Belmont. One idea studied would have run it through uptown via a tunnel under Trade Street. That would add roughly $1 billion to construction costs. In my reporting, I referred to the tunnel idea as costing less to operate over time and shortening travel time considerably. But Brock LaForty, the Carolinas area manager for the consultant WSP, which CATS hired to study Silver Line routes, contacted me to make clear that WSP’s analysis found the tunnel route would save two minutes per trip, a difference he and CATS officials both called marginal, and he said WSP had not analyzed whether the tunnel would cost less to operate over time.

The statements about travel time and lower operating costs were the personal opinions of Ron Tober, a former CATS CEO with extensive transit planning and operating experience in multiple cities, who was working for WSP as a consultant on the project.

Tober’s remarks created a bit of a stir between WSP, CATS and Tober. Tober told me he was deliberate in speaking out about CATS’ decision to opt for a route bypassing the heart of uptown Charlotte and the Charlotte Transportation Center in favor of one farther north, along the side of the Brookshire Expressway. Tober said he recognized there might be blowback if he went public with his concerns. And there was. Tober was to have left WSP at the end of March. Instead, he left last week.

CATS Chief Executive John Lewis told Steve Harrison of WFAE, Charlotte’s public radio station, that the decision not to select the tunnel option was influenced by the city’s goals for economic development. “From a purely mobility standpoint, the tunnel was a great alternative for us,” Lewis told Harrison, but said CATS couldn’t look only at mobility. “Lewis said CATS is a part of the city of Charlotte and the city has other goals, like economic development. The area around I-277 is mostly empty today,” Harrison reported.

He quoted Lewis: “And being a part of the city, we had to look at it beyond just the mobility aspect of, how do we move people from one point to another” Lewis said. “There were the economic development goals, there was supporting affordable housing.”

Remember, Lewis works for City Manager Marcus Jones. And the City Council, as well as many others in the community, have deep and appropriate concerns about the city’s need for more affordable housing. Putting affordable housing along the city’s new light rail lines is a longtime – if under-realized – goal.

But look at the areas near the Brookshire and North Tryon Street where the Silver Line would go. The area is already redeveloping and gentrifying. Residents and small businesses in Belmont, Optimist Park, Druid Hills, Lockwood and the Greenville neighborhood are already worried about land prices zooming upward. (See “North End Is Hot, But Can It Handle Coming Change?”) It isn’t as if those areas will see no new development without the light rail. To contend the Silver Line is needed for “economic development” is – to put it diplomatically – misguided. Some might even say untethered from reality.

Plus, there is no funding to build the Silver Line. Today’s GOP leadership at federal and state levels are either virulently anti-transit or just not interested in spending more money on it. Any new taxes to support CATS and the Silver Line would need a state legislative OK and would presumably involve surrounding counties which have not in the past two decades offered to tax their own residents for transit. Do not hold your breath that anything will happen until well after 2020, and quite possibly 2030. In other words gentrification will have swallowed the area now being eyed as needing economic development long before the Silver Line gets built. A deep concern that development needs a boost is, to my eyes, misplaced.

Is this just the latest impatient development push from Charlotte’s uptown leaders, who have not in my 40 years of residence here ever met a glitzy development project they did not welcome? Are they embarrassed that North Tryon Street is not yet glossy enough? After all, there are two facilities for the homeless on North Tryon near where the Silver Line would run, and the area can look at bit down at the heels. Can’t have that, can we?

I’m not a transit analyst and not equipped to say whether long-term cost savings of the tunnel would make up for the extra cost to build it, or whether the inconvenience of the Silver Line bypassing the heart of uptown will be a serious impediment to ridership, or not. That deserves clear-eyed study. The local nonprofit Sustain Charlotte contended just that in comments to the Metropolitan Transit Commission. Assessing the way the route will affect real estate development deserves some clear thinking as well.

“Economic development” brings higher land prices to an area. That makes affordability even harder to provide. The city has not to date ensured that any affordable housing gets built near its existing light rail line. It hopes to rectify that, which is admirable and I wish them well. But so far those plans are embryonic, not a proven and successful strategy.

So do they want “economic development,” or do they want affordable housing? It is very hard to have both at the same time in one place, especially if that place is in an extremely hot development market, like Charlotte.

I’m left with this question: Should the city reject without further study what may be a better mobility option – which would benefit all transit riders – in hopes that its still elusive transit-oriented affordable housing wishes bear fruit?

A closer view of where the Silver Line would run through west Charlotte, across the Catawba River and into the town of Belmont. Map courtesy of CATS