Forget putting light rail transit down the middle of Independence Boulevard, and instead put bus rapid transit on high-occupancy-vehicle lanes already planned. Send a streetcar down Monroe Road. And convince the state to move its Regional Farmers Market to some of the vacant properties on Independence.
Yep, I think the recommendations this morning from a panel from the nonprofit Urban Land Institute will prompt some talk.
"My eyes lit up at the options," was the reaction from Carolyn Flowers, chief of the Charlotte Area Transit System. Even before the panel presentation had wound down, she was emailing to see if a presentation could be made to the Metropolitan Transit Commission, CATS' governing body, next month.
Her eyes lit up because the transit recommendation for Independence would, in essence, mean the state builds that Indy Boulevard transit line, and all cash-strapped CATS would have to find is money to buy buses and other equipment and to pay drivers. The ULI panel recommendation would even mean cost savings for the N.C. Department of Transportation for its long-planned Independence Boulevard widening project.
That's because the current plans to widen Indy Boulevard – a project for which there is at present no money in the state's five-year plan, but which is likely to get funded at some point later – call for a 52-foot center section to be reserved for a future CATS transit project – maybe light rail (LRT), maybe bus rapid transit (BRT); the MTC still has to decide. If you eliminate that 52-foot section but still build the planned HOT/HOV lanes, you could run BRT or express buses in the HOT lanes (and remember T=toll=revenue stream), and still need a narrower overall corridor, i.e. less money needed to buy right-of-way.
NCDOT secretary Gene Conti was part of the panel, so I'm assuming he'd have scotched recommendations that were thoroughly unworkable from NCDOT's point of view.
East Charlotte residents have spent years pushing for light rail transit, not bus, along Independence. They know LRT in general attracts more development than bus transit, because the rail means the route won't get switched, unlike a less permanent bus route. How will this new idea go over with them? Will the suggested addition of a streetcar along Monroe Road be enough of an inducement?
Several ULI panel members, from cities such as Houston, Denver and New York, all sang variations on this theme: Putting light rail along a limited-access, high-speed and high-volume highway like Independence won't attract much development. That's been a lesson from Denver's light rail, which runs next to a freeway, they said. "Nodes [neighborhood centers] on high-speed corridors do not work," said Carlton Brown, an economic development expert with Full Spectrum, a development firm in New York and Jackson, Miss.
So, they say, plan to put rail along the smaller commercial corridors where it does have a chance to attract transit-oriented redevelopment: Central Avenue and Monroe Road. Of course, no one had concrete proposals for how to find revenue to build even the Central Avenue streetcar, much less adding another. Their suggestions: Get creative. Build in phases. Find a benefactor, like Bill Gates helping the Seattle-to-Tacoma line. That led to a quip from an elected official in the audience – whom I'll not name, and so this person owes me one – about the "Leon and Sandra Levine Line." After all, the Family Dollar headquarters is right on Monroe ...
I was sitting next to East Charlotte activist Susan Lindsay. Her immediate reaction was that she wanted to know more before coming to a conclusion about whether to support or oppose the suggestions. But since the MTC lacks money for any transit of any form down Independence – or for any streetcars, any West Charlotte transit, or even enough money to extend the one light rail line past UNC Charlotte – a proposal that might allow rapid transit there in our lifetimes could just win some support.
Note: The ULI panel's recommendations are simply that – ideas from a group of experts from around the country. They don't supersede any existing plans or change any priorities.
Photo: Streetcar in Portland, Ore.