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King of the Queen
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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
Some who want trains will get buses; next line to be built is undecided
DIANNE WHITACRE
Staff Writer

With construction under way on Charlotte's first light-rail line, officials are already bracing for controversies expected next year over which line gets built next -- and which communities will get busways instead of train lines.

Consultants are now at work calculating what those new lines would cost and how many people will ride. But it is already clear Charlotte Area Transit System will not have enough money to provide trains to all five routes.

The decision on what gets built first and who gets trains and who gets busways could pit sections of the city against each other and suburban towns against the city. And making the decision will be a transit commission controlled by the Mecklenburg County towns that surround Charlotte.

Supporters say rapid transit, along with building roads, is a must as the Charlotte region struggles with sprawling growth. Critics say that the money should be used to widen existing roads instead of building transit that few will ride.

The major decisions that will shape Charlotte's transit future will be made in the next 18 months:

• Which transit line will be built next?

• Will trains or busways go on Independence and Wilkinson boulevards?

• Will streetcar construction be accelerated to help Charlotte's eastside?

Residents will have many chances at community meetings to give their opinions, but officials such as Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory say the public should not assume every line will be built as scheduled.

"I have this qualifier: It is a preliminary plan, and that's why we're doing this analysis," McCrory said. "It won't be implemented unless the numbers justify it."

Light rail, then what?

The city's first light-rail line is scheduled to open in spring 2007, from uptown to I-485 north of Pineville. At a cost of about $26.3 million, three teams of consultants are now working on the preliminary plans for the rest of CATS's master plan -- a streetcar network and rapid-transit lines to Davidson, University City, Matthews and the airport. The studies will be completed within the next year and will give transit commissioners updated cost and ridership estimates for each line.The remaining lines are estimated at $1.7 billion, a figure sure to rise as more detailed engineering plans are completed. For example, in 2002, the South Boulevard line was estimated to cost $371 million, but it is being built for $427 million due to higher costs and added engineering needs.

With local and state money tight and federal help uncertain, those fresh estimates will show some lines are more cost-effective than others.

Strong ridership is important for the Federal Transit Administration. CATS transit chief Ron Tober says building any line without federal help would be "very difficult" and he is not as optimistic as he once was that all lines will win federal money.

And even if the FTA and state offer their help, Tober says the half-cent transit sales tax won't be enough to build trains in all five rapid-transit lines.

That financial reality is a sobering thought for McCrory because he knows how badly some communities want trains, including members of the City Council who want tracks to the airport, university and on Independence.

North Mecklenburg

Transit advocates expect CATS's transit commission will agree to build the north Mecklenburg commuter rail line next, from uptown to Mooresville.

An early CATS study said that line would have 9,200 daily riders, the lowest ridership of the five. The estimate is expected to rise in the new study.

The ease of starting train service on the north Mecklenburg freight line coupled with complications in building other lines have caused the north corridor line to jump ahead.

That's only right, the north Mecklenburg town mayors say.

During the past five years, a dense urban village with a grocery, condos, shops and the town hall has been built in Cornelius, a short walk from the station.

In Huntersville, CATS proposes to rebuild one section of its track east of its current location on Hambright Road in order to open up 450 acres for development -- and more passengers.

"Everyone wants rail because it is an economic development catalyst," says Huntersville Mayor Kim Phillips.

Objections to busways

Charlotte's transit plan has evolved in the past decade, from an earlier emphasis on busways to today's proposal dominated by trains.In the mid-1990s, consultants told Charlotte that trains would not be cost-effective because of the area's sprawling development patterns. So the city turned its attention to a system of bus-only roads called busways.

Compared with costly light rail, with its tracks and overhead power line, busways are a transit bargain, costing as little as half the price. Ordinary buses run through neighborhoods to pick up passengers and then return to the busway, where they can move as fast as trains with no traffic to slow them down.

Transportation planners loved busways for their affordability and flexibility. But residents of some areas have lobbied for trains, because they believe they will get more riders and bring more development.

Over the years, Mecklenburg's original plan for three busways was whittled to two, on Independence and Wilkinson boulevards. Now fierce community opposition to both those busways means CATS is considering trains there, too.

Busways are still in CATS's tentative plans but a possible replacement has appeared that is more popular with train-lovers -- old-fashioned streetcars. They're cheaper than light rail and more popular with the public than busways, although slower than trains. CATS is proposing streetcars in uptown, Central Avenue and Beatties Ford Road. Consultants are also studying a streetcar line for Wilkinson.

But the streetcar proposal, demand for more trains and the disdain for busways are putting financial pressures on the transit commission.

The decision-makers

Who gets trains and who gets buses? Whose plan is put on the shelf?

Those probably will be the most important transportation decisions facing the region in the next generation. Yet it won't be made by powerful Charlotte or Mecklenburg County, but by the mayors of the county's six towns.

Cornelius, Davidson, Huntersville, Matthews, Mint Hill and Pineville control six of eight votes on the transit commission. Charlotte and Mecklenburg County have one vote each.

Those voting rules, hammered out with much debate in 1999, give Charlotte and its 600,000 residents only one vote, the same as Pineville with 4,000 residents.

"The current (transit commission) structure has worked great," Tober said, "but it will be severely tested in the next two years as we get better numbers."

Charlotte may find itself outvoted when the transit commission decides next year which corridors will get trains or busways.

The latest hint of disagreement came this spring when transit commissioner Parks Helms, chairman of the Mecklenburg County commissioners, suggested the transit commission accelerate plans for the Central Avenue streetcar to help that changing area as well as struggling Eastland Mall.

His remarks shook transit commissioners from the northern towns, who said communities that have long planned for rapid transit should have priority.

McCrory downplays the occasional friction between the towns and Charlotte. "I personally hope the north line is built next," he said.

But, he notes, Charlotte has its share of power because its City Council must vote on CATS's consulting and construction contracts. The council cannot force the transit commission to build trains where the city wants, but the council can veto a plan it does not like by refusing to award a contract.

Details from CATS

To learn more about the CATS plan, you can go to its Web site www.ridetransit.org and click on rapid transit planning.
 

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Still don't understand how, at some point in time, ANYBODY found it logical to give a small municipality like Pineville (~4000 residents) the same weight as Charlotte (~600,000 residents) on the transit commission. I know the city still controls the contracts, but so? As it is I couldn't care LESS about what suburbs 10-15 miles from the core think about transit. All they're ever going to say is "More roads!" and "me first!"

Bah.
 

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As usual, the south side of the city will be the first in line. Never mind that the western part of the city is the one most desperately in need of these projects, they don't have the money and political push to make it happen. Why do you think the southern corridor of 485 has been finished for a decade but the western end is still in early construction?
 

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King of the Queen
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Discussion Starter · #6 ·
^ the western leg is done. the northern end which you'd think would have the most political push and none of it has been done.
 

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^ I guess it depends on what angle you look at it. I think of the University area as "north" Charlotte, and the direction of Belmont and Mount Holly as "west" Charlotte, even if those don't accord to cardinal directions (you know, I just noticed that the entire city is set at a 45-degree angle. Whose idea was that?). I just think it's rather noticeable that the north-west corridor that still isn't connected just happens to run through the poorest, most minority-heavy neighborhoods in the outer-belt region.





(old maps, but the best I can find. Obviously the eastern segment is completed now, and I believe construction has started on all of the remaining segment.)
 

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King of the Queen
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Discussion Starter · #8 ·
^ very true. i'm actually shocked they havent dont the northern leg. that serves the university area and is the direct alternate to Harris Blvd.
 

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Personally, I’m torn on this issue. On the one hand, I think it would only be fair to select an East/West streetcar or rail line as the next project. Traditionally people in those corridors are huge bus riders. And those two areas surely have the highest number of “blue collar” residents, who would most likely use transit. But on the other hand, I think it’s only natural that you go north next to complement the southern leg. The only problem I have with the northern leg is that the demographics of the residents on that route won’t be nearly as diverse as the South, East and West corridors. Of the four routes, that one would seem to be the most middle class and “white-collar”; i.e. people less likely to use public transportation.
 

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I'd say either the northeast - UNCC route or the southeast - Independence route. But what do I know?
 

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King of the Queen
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Discussion Starter · #11 ·
the north route is going to be next simply becasue there are three towns that want it and are going to fight for it to get passed. the south was done to 'show' that it can be done with south end being the 'dip stick' into transit oriented development and development that came from the placment of transit.

the northern line will be a regular commuter train which is rather boring and bland. did the feds okay the use of DMU on lines with light freight use? if so, that is what the line should have.

of all the corridors - i want to see anything with the streetcar done first. that seems to be the best option for the areas picked for its use and it will be very cool to see how these areas near it transform from its placment. these are areas that havent seen too many new buildings in quite some time.
 

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orulz said:
I believe it would be wise to reference the original source of this article, not just the author. Taken from the Sunday May 15, 2005 Charlotte Observer. Find the original article here: http://www.charlotte.com/mld/charlotte/news/11651272.htm
Yes, if a posted article doesn't include a link back to the source, then it needs to at least cite the publishing paper, exact title of the article, author, date and so on.
 

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It's funny....the politicians are building a line through a part of the city where the demographics aren't the greatest (i agree with the point the people in the western/northern areas would ride the train more) so therefore the ridership will be low--thus making their original point of dissention (widen the roads instead of build a rail line) come true. INterestingly, I took an environment and society course this past semester. My professor said he went to lobby the NC legislature in the late 80's when they passed that stupid Highway Trust Fund Act and tried to get them to build more public transit instead of highway loops. He said the legislator got upset with him and said 'i'm not building rail lines so that 'those people' can come into my neighborhood'. That's sad, and could be interpreted as classist/racist, but does it look like the same thing could be happening here?? I mean, it's true that if you build rail lines anybody can get on and go anywhere the trains go--and that thought probably scares wealthy suburbanites (although unnecessarily).
 

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^ I doubt that -isms are behind these decisions. Charlotte's a pretty integrated city (at least relative to the average), and doesn't really have any Detroit-style ghettos to begin with. I don't get much of an insecurity vibe off the soccer-mom crowd, though I'm probably not hanging out in elite enough circles to know whether that judgment extends to the upper crust.

Really, I think it has more to do with people in the south, east and some parts of the north of the city having more political and economic power to make things convenient for themselves. Someone pointed out in today's Observer that south Charlotte is getting a new school even though the north has demonstrably more need for one. It's simply a case of haves and have-nots.
 

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Jasonhouse said:
Yes, if a posted article doesn't include a link back to the source, then it needs to at least cite the publishing paper, exact title of the article, author, date and so on.
I'm certainly aware of that issue - considering a forummer recently quoted an 'article' & referenced a newspaper, when neither was true.

But it was a good blog entry though :)
 
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