Friday, March 30, 2007

Cost-overruns? What about airport, roads?

(Don't look for another Naked City post next week. I'm taking some vacation. Back in the office April 9. 'Til then, happy reading. Check out if you get bored.)

OK, gang, here are some transit-related tidbits (and some color art at the end) for you -- a little red meat for your weekend.

-- The cost of building the South Corridor light rail was estimated in 1998 in 1998 dollars at $227 million. As of 2007 the cost will be $463 million. That's a bit more than double the preliminary estimate. (In 2007 dollars, $227 million would be $282.7 million.)

-- The cost of building the third runway at Charlotte/Douglas International Airport in 1998 was estimated at $80 million. The construction cost now is $240 million, according to City Manager Pam Syfert. That's triple the preliminary estimate. ($80 million in 1998 dollars would be equivalent to $99.6 million today.)

-- The cost to build the western leg of Interstate 485 was originally estimated at $385 million. Its current cost is $676 million.

-- The southern leg of I-485 was originally estimated to cost $78.3 million. It cost $268 million, or 343 percent over original budget. Most of us would say it should have cost a lot more, in order to add lanes in each direction.

How many local voters are out there howling about those airport cost overruns? Those highway cost overruns?

Here's an interesting quote from City council member Don Lochman, long the council's most fiscally conservative member, at Monday's council discussion about CATS: "I don't get bent out of shape over cost overruns." (He isn't a fan of rail transit, he made clear.)

A final tidbit before you get to the art: Since 1998 the city's contribution to run the bus service has been frozen at its 1998 level: $18.6 million. If the transit tax disappeared and the city continued to run bus service, that total would certainly rise. Inflation since 1998 makes $18.6 million worth roughly $23.2 million.

Below are comparisons: The first map is CATS bus routes today. Since the transit tax began the number of buses went from 134 to 328 and routes went from 47 to 76. The next map is a preliminary estimate of bus service IF the transit tax goes away and IF City Council decides to hold property taxes increases as low as possible but still run city bus service. (CATS is a countywide bus service, not limited to the city.)

Obviously, council could choose to cut the city budget to find bus service money to try to avoid raising property taxes. Some folks say that's an easy solution. They're dreaming. I've watched many councils over many years. They simply are not going to dismember police, fire or other city departments. They'd have done so already.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Who was fit to be tied?

So who was it who tied himself to a tree on Wendover Road to try to save the tree?

The local political chatterers may have heard activist Stan Campbell say a few weeks ago, on Mayor Pat's weekly radio show on WBT, that Don Reid had tied himself to a tree on Wendover Road. Apparently the mayor picked up that misinformation and repeated it Sunday.

Reid, for you newcomers, was a popular at-large City Council member, a conservative Republican who liked (and likes) to accuse fellow GOPers who don't meet his standard of conservatism of being RINOs (Republicans In Name Only). He still holds a weekly breakfast for the faithful on Thursdays. Here's Reid's e-mail to Hizzoner, which he shared with multiple others:

I did not protest when Stan Campbell, on your show a couple of weeks ago, stated that I tied myself to a tree on Wendover Road. Now I hear you repeated this charge on your Sunday radio show. For the record, I never tied myself or anyone else to a tree on Wendover Road. I don’t know whether you and Stan are lying or just have false information, but in either event, you’re wrong and I hope you will correct the record and apologize.

Well, SOMEONE tied himself to a tree. In a city whose history of extravagant environmental activism is roughly as robust as New York's habit of courteous small talk on rush-hour subways, the Wendover protest looms large in local memory.

So who was it who tied himself to that Wendover Road tree? I happen to know.

In 1977, the city was widening Wendover and wanted to cut down all those giant willow oak trees. Neighbors erupted in furious protest. Eventually they convinced the city to back off. A few trees were cut but many were spared.

Don Reid was active in the protest. But it was his co-chair, Jim Cochran, who lived on Wendover, who tied himself to the tree. Jim's son, Webb, who was about 10, also tied himself to a tree. Here's the photo that ran in the Observer in 1977:

I knew this because I found the photo above in our old files in 2003, and wrote a column then about Charlotte's relative lack of robust activist protest. (Yes, there is some. But not nearly as much as you find in some other cities.)

While I was e-mailing Reid to say it was Jim Cochran (which Reid knew), it appears Tom Cox, a former council member and county commissioner, was also reading Reid's e-mail. He tried to implicate Jim's wife, Robin.

Don/Mary, Don't mean to start rumors, but my memory says that Jim tied wife Robin to the tree. Tom

Sorry, Tom. I ran into the Cochrans, who now live uptown, Tuesday night. Both got a good laugh. They said it's Robin who's always been the activist. Indeed, she’s still at it. She was eloquent in defense of Spirit Square at a recent county commissioners' meeting.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Trains, buses and cracked pavement

Just back from three days in the Bay Area, and came away with a few thoughts that seem relevant to the transit- and transportation-besotted Naked City readership:

1. I drove U.S. 101 from the airport south to Palo Alto one day, and the next drove from Palo Alto to San Jose.

One observation: Although San Francisco and San Jose have more than 900,000 residents each and the stretch between the two where Palo Alto lies is full of municipalities, I saw far less litter on 101 than you see on Charlotte's highways. Either they pick up the trash more often or people don't litter as heavily. Makes me even more embarrassed at our slovenly roads -- both city- and state-maintained roads.

Another: The pavement itself was in horrible shape -- even worse than ours. I even saw green stuff (weeds? moss? hard to tell at 60 mph) growing in the pavement potholes and crevices.

2. Took Caltrain from Palo Alto into San Francisco one day. This is Amtrak-like service, which runs as often as every 10-15 minutes during rush hour, and every half hour or so other times, between SF and the suburbs south of San Jose. I took it into the city at midmorning and it was almost filled. Coming home at 3 p.m. it was only partly filled. One-way fare between SF and SJ is $8.25.

Sure would be nice if we could have something similar between, say, Charlotte and Raleigh. Or even Raleigh, Greensboro and Winston-Salem. Anything to relieve I-85 and I-40.

3. San Francisco and its metro area offer multiple public transportation options: In addition to Caltrain, there's the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), which is "heavy rail," meaning electrified trains fed through the rail below the train. Muni is San Francisco's Municipal Transportation Agency, which runs buses, light rail, historic streetcars, electric trolley coaches and the famous cable cars. And that's just in San Francisco.

Other suburban areas have their own transit systems: e.g. SamTrans, the San Mateo County Transit District which provides bus service and the VTA, the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, which has bus and light rail service. And Palo Alto offers free shuttle service around the town.

Near as I can tell, the region needs them all -- and more. I took Caltrain, then two buses to get to an art museum, then took a taxi back to the Caltrain station. Trying to make a train (that I missed by 5 minutes) the cabbie went on one of the freeways. It was bumper to bumper. At 2:30 p.m.

What does this mean for Charlotte?

First, we have to be patient. BART began as an idea among civic and government leaders after WWII. Voters approved a BART plan in 1962. Construction started in 1964. It carried its first passengers in 1972.

Second, you can't have effective transportation in a large metro area without multiple choices.
Unless this region's economy tanks, we're going to get a whole lot bigger in coming decades. Starting to build a rapid transit system now will be monumentally cheaper than waiting until we're already choked and built out, because land will be even more expensive then. Adopting a "roads only" approach because the region hasn't hit urban densities as high as older, larger areas is about as smart as waiting until your kid is a sophomore in high school to start saving for college.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Transit – socialist plot?

Got this e-mail, sent to a large number of recipients, from a former Charlotte City Council member who, like many of you, doesn’t support light rail. Here’s his comment, unedited:

“It is my belief that truth always wins. The fact that socialist propagandists and smart growth advocates want public rail systems for control and taxation to redistribute wealth, will fail. America is strong because Americans are good. We should begin the process of eliminating the negative messages produced by those who would overthrow our values and culture by countering them at every turn. Let’s get the message out .”

Um, does that mean if you support light rail you’re a socialist? Good grief.

And that to support light rail means you want to overturn American values and culture? Note, the e-mailer says “negative messages” should be eliminated. Down with that pesky freedom of speech thingie.

Reality: Plenty of Americans think light rail is a good public investment. Plenty don’t. There’s room for many opinions in America. Many of you who comment on this blog are living proof of that.

To disagree about what kind of public transportation should get public money doesn’t make anyone a socialist. Some folks need to get a grip.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Eastland Mall – The city allowed this mess

You watch. We, the taxpayers, are going to wind up shelling out to fix the mess left behind by elected officials who let developers rape East Charlotte.

This morning a panel from the nonprofit Urban Land Institute presented its recommendations for what to do about Eastland Mall. Read tomorrow’s Observer for details. Here's the story from Friday's Charlotte Observer. The report is also on the city's web site.

The ULI panel is recommending a far-reaching redevelopment of almost the whole Eastland site. New name, new streets, scraping the site clean and starting afresh. It will be expensive and will likely require public investment in better infrastructure, and possibly other incentives. Without it, they said, East Charlotte will be in trouble.

If property values there tank, and crime rises, the whole city will be in trouble because East Charlotte is a huge chunk of territory.

Mayor Pat McCrory, who spoke at the presentation, was pointed but precise in his “corridors of crap” analysis. “We built pure crap in a lot of these corridors,” he said. He referred to the design of commercial buildings throughout East Charlotte, built in the 1960s and ’70s under what he rightly termed “lousy zoning,” and slack local ordinances that didn’t require sidewalks, trees, parks or much of anything.

Here’s the underlying problem. For decades your elected officials – both city and county – just rolled over for developers. They took their money, in campaign donations, and let the developers have their way. Didn’t even need pimps.

The ULI panel found one reason Eastland Mall has been in such distress the past 10 years is a “dramatic oversupply of retailing in the area.” The number of retail square feet built (30 square feet per capita) is 50 percent more than the national average of 20 square feet per capita.

The panel found “obsolete, deteriorated” strip shopping centers. It found the public realm – that means streets, sidewalks, parks and public open space – “does not match consumer expectations.” It found that multiple big box stores allowed to be built in the area have taken away Eastland’s customer base.

The market in the area isn’t bad, they said. There’s just way, way too much retail space to serve it. And who approved all that excessive retail space? Your City Council. (In earlier years, the county commissioners approved stuff outside city limits, so they probably share blame.)

Whose zoning rules were so slack they allowed ugly strip shopping centers? Your City Council. Whose ordinances were so slack they didn’t require sidewalks or trees or open space? Your City Council and your county commissioners.

They were sweet-talked by developers and didn’t believe in putting onerous restrictions on the private sector – anywhere, not just in East Charlotte. Let the market sort it out, they said as they cavalierly over-zoned retail space in the University City area in 1993.

In 1999 the City Council approved a rezoning for Lowe’s and Target big box stores on Albemarle Road that the planners, the planning commission and neighborhood residents begged them to deny it, saying it would cause ugly sprawl and undermine Eastland Mall’s viability. Thanks to Patrick Cannon, Malachi Greene, Mike Jackson, Nasif Majeed, Don Reid and Lynn Wheeler, who voted for the rezoning, those predictions came true.

Now, 30 years after Eastland Mall opened, it’s clear somebody (mall developer Henry Faison tops the list, but it’s a long list) made a ton of money on the mall and the attending “crap” on Albemarle Road.

And if anyone ever has to clean up the mess elected officials allowed them to leave behind, it’s probably going to be all of the rest of us.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

And now, a word from the educrats

This is an open letter to the state education official who was kind enough to send a letter to our home last week:

Dear Dr. Elsie C. Leak:

If someone gave Nobel Prizes for impenetrable writing, I’d nominate your recent letter. Your command of educratese is superb. I have read it through several times and still haven’t the faintest idea what it is about or why you spent state money to mail it to me.

You must understand, Dr. Leak, that I’m not an illiterate or uncaring parent. As it happens, I scored over 700 on my verbal SAT and I graduated Phi Beta Kappa from a well-respected university. I have made my living writing – and reading – for decades. But I can’t make heads or tails of your letter.

It is notifying me that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools “is entering Title I District Improvement under No Child Left Behind.” I even know what a Title I school is – and that my daughter’s school is NOT a Title I school! And still you’ve managed to baffle me.

Here’s what my buddy, Observer education reporter Pete Smolowitz, says the letter means: CMS has slipped into what’s known as Title I District Improvement status, because it did not hit federal benchmarks under the No Child Left Behind Act. Half the state’s school systems now fall into that category. CMS must now spend a certain percentage of federal money on professional development for teachers. Because of the change in status, the money can be used at a wider range of schools, not just the ones with the highest poverty rates.

Dr. Leak, you work at the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. You are associate superintendent of curriculum, instruction and accountability services. Whatever that is. You have a doctorate in education.

Did they teach you how to write this way in education school, or are you just naturally gifted?

Perhaps the work you do does not require clear communication. We, the taxpayers, can only hope that is the case, and that this letter is the only instance during your career that you will be expected to write anything, to anyone.

A word of advice, if you’ll permit me to offer it: Don’t ever even think of going near a job in the classroom. Those kids would eat you alive!