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Charlotte:
Future of Public Transit System Depends on November Vote

Commentary by Citizens for Efficient Mass Transit · July 2007


The following commentary has been adapted and edited from material on the website of Charlotte, North Carolina's rail transit advocacy organization, Citizens for Efficient Mass Transit. Whether to continue the Charlotte area's half-cent tax dedicated to transit is an issue facing voters in November 2007.


Why does Citizens for Efficient Mass Transit say we need to keep the transit sales tax? It is important to people living in the Charlotte/Mecklenburg area that we retain the half-cent sales tax earmarked for transit. This is true whether you are a transit rider, or drive your car and never use public transportation. Why? Let us try to explain this to you.

What would happen if voters repeal the transit sales tax?

Charlotte bus 60 to 70% of the money collected from the sales tax currently is used to operate Charlotte's present bus system. "If that revenue is lost, a sizeable increase in property taxes is about the only alternative available to make up for the lost revenue.
[Photo: BusExplorer.com]



Why should I care about transit if I drive to work?

Transit will make your drive easier – easier than it would be without transit taking cars off the road. Despite what anti-rail, anti-transit people say, public transportation will help forestall ever-increasing congestion. Charlotte's South Corridor light rail transit (LRT) line will offer a 25-minute ride from one end of the line to the other when it opens. Fifty years from now that ride will still be 25 minutes. How long will your same trip take on I-77 50 years from now, or even 20 years from now? As congestion gets worse on I-77, even more drivers will switch to light rail.

Wait a minute. Why should congestion get worse? You just told me light rail will take people off I-77. Shouldn't light rail make all the traffic go away?

Transit experts never said light rail would "make all the traffic go away". That is something an anti-rail activist dreamed up a few years ago in a desperate attempt to make light rail look bad. What transit people have said is that light rail will provide a clear choice over driving, and many people will use it, including many new to public transportation that now drive their cars. (For more on the issue of congestion, see Mobility Congestion.

If congestion is going to get worse, even with light rail, why are we spending so much money to build rail?

Would doing nothing or just continuing to run buses on congested South Blvd. make things any better? Of course not! Not building light rail, or building some cheap substitute such as a busway, would only make congestion far worse. Charlotte's population is growing rapidly, and car ownership is growing at an even faster pace. Light rail's ability to remove drivers from the road will be largely cancelled out by ever more cars moving onto our highways. That is simply the price every community pays for rapid growth.

All right, maybe keeping the transit sales tax will keep my property tax from going up. Maybe light rail will take some cars off the road and give me a choice over driving my car. But are these the only reasons you have for keeping the sales tax and supporting rapid transit? I need more reasons if I'm going to vote to keep the tax.

There are plenty of other reasons as well. Gas [motor fuel] prices are high and getting higher, and although they may go down from time to time, the only certainty is that they will continue to climb upward in the future.

Charlotte's population is growing increasingly older and more transit-dependent. Have you ever thought about what will happen when you no longer can drive? That time is coming for all of us. Good public transit will allow us to stay active and be independent.

How about our air quality? You don't think it really matters? It does! Charlotte has come dangerously close to violating federal clean air standards. "If that happens, the federal government could cut off funding for future road construction. It could also seriously impact development in the Charlotte region. Also, how about the impact on our property values from continually widening our streets to accommodate more and more vehicles? Sooner or later, this is going to have a negative effect on our whole quality of life.

But couldn't a better bus system solve these problems? Why does Charlotte need a rapid transit system?

Charlotte railcar Almost every city of Charlotte's size or larger has invested in some form of rapid transit. Rapid transit comes in several varieties. There is light rail, which we are now building (see photo at right), or busways, sometimes referred to as bus rapid transit. There is heavy rail, such as subways and elevated systems, which we see in our largest cities. There is also commuter rail, which commonly shares tracks with freight railroads. They all have one thing in common. They operate on private right-of-way, free from traffic congestion. The one exception to this is that in some cities light rail or busways may share city streets with the automobile over parts of its operation.
[Photo: CATS]

Transit critics often say all we really need is a good bus system using existing streets and freeways. However, this is not really realistic, and will simply not work any longer in a city of Charlotte's size because buses can only run as fast as the rest of the traffic on the road over which they are operating. This therefore provides little incentive for people to get out of their cars and ride the bus. The main reason large cities have rapid transit is to give people a clear choice over using their private cars. If you don't provide that clear choice, not enough people will use it, and you have defeated the main purpose of having these transit systems. It is not just for people that don't have cars, as some critics seem to think.

Does light rail transit bring development?

We think that most people who read the newspapers or watch TV already know the answer to the above question. The Charlotte Trolley, plus simply the promise of future light rail in the South Corridor, have resulted in attracting over one billion dollars in new development, or redevelopment of deteriorated areas, along the line. New development plans along the corridor are being announced almost weekly.

The evidence from this is so obvious that it is incomprehensible how anyone could dispute it. Yet we had two ex-city councilmen, Jackson and Reid, who some time ago were still trying to tell us that all the development in South End was going to happen anyway, with or without the Charlotte Trolley. It appears quite possible we will continue to add hundreds of millions of additional investment along the corridor in the next few years. Our two ex-councilmen, and others like them, will probably still be in a state of denial, saying it was all just a coincidence.

Transit Oriented Development will pay for the cost of installing light rail several times over, not to mention raising property values everywhere along its right-of-way. This is not an unusual occurrence – it has happened in most all of the 25 or more cities across North America that have built new light rail systems or upgraded existing ones. In some cities the extent of this development has been greater than in others, but the common thread in every case is that the cities that built light rail are better off than before they built these systems. (See Urban Development and TOD.

Let's look at just a couple of examples:

· Portland, Oregon's modern streetcar line, a scaled-down version of light rail, has attracted 100 projects worth $2.3 billion in less than 5 years since it was built. All of that development was within 2 blocks of the line. There can be no coincidence when this is happening. This development includes 7,248 housing units and 4.6 million sq. ft. of office and retail. Proximity to mass transit allowed developers to build fewer parking spaces. Ridership is more than triple planners' projections. [Source: USA Today 2007/01/08, "Cities rediscover allure of streetcars"] (For more on Portland, see Portland Light Rail and Public Transport Developments.)

· in Texas, investment in light rail is paying off at a two-to-one rate. In the Dallas area alone, the State of Texas will enjoy more than $8.1 billion in economic activity, increased tax revenue, and labor income from the region's $4.86 billion investment in the 45-mile DART (Dallas Area Rapid Transit) light rail system, and its planned 48-mile extensions, according to a recent study. Conducted by the University of North Texas Center for Economic Development and Research, the study also found that DART's annual operating expenditure of $342 million creates additional statewide economic activity of $500 million each year. By 2014 that activity will jump to $650 million. (For more on Dallas, see Dallas Rail Transit and Public Transport Developments.)

What about the effects on development here in Charlotte?

Even though our first light rail line won't open until this November, we can already see big results. The following table lists the building permit value of construction in the Center City and within mile of the South Corridor transit stations:

2003 $280,649,339
2004 $300,751,265
2005 $321,885,295
2006 $403,130,909
Source: Center for Transportation Policy Studies/UNC Charlotte - 30 April 2007

This May (2007), two large residential and retail projects were announced near light rail stations. There was no coincidence about either of them because the builder said they were being built because of the light rail stations nearby. One is near Westinghouse Blvd. and the other near Arrowood. The Westinghouse development could top $350 million and include 1,400 homes. The developer, Steve Harris, is quoted in the Charlotte Business Journal as saying "If there are people who think that mass transit is not the way to go, then they've got their heads in the sand."

How will light rail transit impact taxes?

Light rail will save taxpayers' money in the long run.

It is generally true that light rail costs more to build than busways. However, as the old saying goes, "You get what you pay for" – and this has never been more true than with light rail. We often see in the media how much more light rail costs to build. However, approximately 50% of that expense will be paid by grants from the federal government. (This is transit grant money that would simply be allocated to another city if not to Charlotte.) From the media, we never seem to hear about the high cost of labor to operate a busway, or that buses need replacing nearly 3 times as often as light rail vehicles. In a few years any money that was saved building a busway (rather than LRT) will be lost to cover the high cost of operating and maintaining the system – costs which must be covered locally. Once that has happened, we will continue to pay these high costs for the lifespan of the system.

These systems have on the average a very long life expectancy. For example, the systems in New York and Chicago are now well into their second 100 years, and show no signs of going away anytime soon.

Even more important, the operating and maintenance cost of these rapid transit systems are paid for almost entirely by local government through their transit agencies, sometimes with a little help from state government. We cannot expect any assistance at the federal level to help cover these costs – therefore it makes sense to install a system which minimizes operating costs.

Anti-rail critics seem to concentrate solely on the construction costs of rapid transit without regard to the operating and maintenance costs of running a system. They either don't get it, or don't want to get it! The operating and maintenance costs of running rapid transit are far more important than the initial cost of its construction because we will likely be paying for them out of our own pocket for the next 100 years or more! (See Cost, Budget, & Financial issues and Feasibility issues.)

For all the above reasons and many more, we need a good, attractive, cost-effective public transportation system in the Charlotte/Mecklenburg area. A healthy system badly needs the funding that the half-cent transit sales tax provides. Now is not the time to turn back the clock on something as vitally important to our future!

This is why Citizens for Efficient Mass Transit is asking voters to vote NO on the repeal of the transit sales tax at the referendum this November.



Light Rail Now! website
URL: http://www.lightrailnow.org/features/f_cha_2007-07a.htm
Updated 2007/07/17

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