Thursday, March 31, 2011

Road planning from the disco era - the rest of the story

In putting together my op-ed, "Road planning from the disco era," the limitations of space and time required me to leave out some juicy tidbits. You lucky blog readers now may read the rest of the story.

I wrote that the N.C. Turnpike Authority is required by the feds to analyze impacts/effects of the very roads that the authority is, by law, expected to build. The point here is that the legislature, for example with the 1989 Highway Trust Fund, decides to build roads well in advance of any detailed and painstaking analysis of whether the damage they'll do will be worse than their benefits. Today, significant questions have been raised about both Gaston County's Garden Parkway and the Monroe Bypass – the latter having been ordered up by legislature in 1989.

Let's let politicians, not planners, choose the routes. March 17 the General Assembly passed, and the next day the governor signed, a bill that in essence requires the N.C. Turnpike Authority to consider only one route – the most sprawl-inducing one – for the proposed Triangle Expressway Southeast Extension toll road, a link of Raleigh's I-540 outer loop. The bill, sponsored by Wake Sens. Dan Blue, D, and Sen. Richard Stevens, R, appears to box the turnpike authority into such a spot that it might not be able to meet federal law. The feds require analysis of several alternatives.

"We think that they've probably backed themselves into an untenable corner," says David Farren of the Southern Environmental Law Center. He adds, "What's most outrageous is just the idea of going as far out as you possibly can, which means the road is longer, the road is more expensive and it's more sprawl-inducing." The SELC has filed two lawsuits contesting what it says are improprieties and falsifications involving the federal impact study for the Monroe Bypass.

Why spend only $15 million when you can spend $800 million? Another tidbit that didn't make the column: The SELC found a 2007 NCDOT study showing that for $15 million, traffic flows on U.S. 74 in Union County could be improved significantly by changing lights, timing and intersections. The N.C. Turnpike Authority, engaged in studying the $800 million Monroe Bypass which aims to alleviate congestion on U.S. 74, didn't even know that study existed, Farren says.

The state doesn't do land use planning. And Richard Nixon wasn't a crook and Bill Clinton never had sex with that woman. When the state plans highways, it engages in land use planning. Next time the state agrees to spend your tax dollars to build a bypass for a city that hasn't had the sense to say no to congestion-causing highway sprawl development, the state should not pony up dime one until the local government enacts unambiguous land use and zoning ordinances that will prevent said sprawl, including single-family subdivisions, from the new bypass.

The chances of that happening? About like snowballs in hell.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Find the bad bridges in N.C., S.C.

If you get a shiver whenever you drive over the Yadkin River bridge on I-85 between Rowan and Davidson counties, you might find it instructive to spend a few minutes seeing how your county, and your state, compare nationally in a ranking of deficient highway bridges.

The nonprofit Transportation for America coalition has pulled together an online tool that lets you see state and county stats on highway bridges deemed deficient by the federal government. Here's the North Carolina page. The Tar Heel state ranks No. 14 in the percentage of deficient bridges, 13 percent.

Rockingham County, north of Greensboro, is the worst county, with 33.6 percent of its bridges rated deficient. In the Charlotte metro region, Cabarrus is worst - No. 4 in the state - with 25 percent.

South Carolina is right there with us, ranking No. 15, also with 13 percent of its bridges deficient. The three worst states, in order: Pennsylvania (26.5 percent), Oklahoma (22 percent), Iowa (21.7 percent).

It's hard to see how this isn't yet another problem confronting our national and state transportation policies, where (my opinion here) disproportionate money has been spent on building new highways with little regard for the costs of future maintenance.

The group's assessment of the roots of the problem: "Two key problems persist: while Congress has repeatedly declared bridge safety a national priority, existing federal programs don't ensure that aging bridges actually get fixed; and the current level of investment is nowhere near what is needed to keep up with our rapidly growing backlog of aging bridges. Did you know that states can transfer up to half of their federal money dedicated to bridge repair to other projects, no questions asked?"

Here's a link to the page describing what data was used.

And for the record, the NCDOT is working on rebuilding that Yadkin River bridge.

Photo credit: Yadkin River bridge, in 2007 Observer file photo

Monday, March 28, 2011

Highway tales from the crypt

It was like a quick, surprise trip to the mindset of the 1980s. Or maybe like one of those horror movies when something you thought was dead turns out to be twitching in the grave, still alive.

I dropped in on a group of regional elected officials and other civic-leader types who'd gathered Monday afternoon to talk about "next steps" for the worthy-but-unsexy goal of regional transportation planning, with the Centralina Council of Governments moderating a series of conversations by a study group.

It's one of those under-the-radar issues, boring but important if you think a metro region should act like, well, a metro region and not a bunch of unrelated local governments, especially when it's dealing with something as important – and as costly to the taxpayers – as transportation. As I've mentioned previously (some might even say ad nauseam), the Charlotte metro region has possibly the most fragmented transportation planning of any metro area in the country. Gaston County isn't in the same transportation planning group as Charlotte. Cabarrus County isn't either. Ditto York County, S.C., and ditto the whole Lake Norman area.

It was as the group was talking about the need to articulate a vision for the whole region, that the zombie idea arose from the crypt. Gaston County commissioner Joe Carpenter started talking about how it felt like, as Yogi Berra used to say, "deja vu all over again." He recalled the era from 1988 to 1992, when a regional coalition, the Carolinas Transportation Compact, pushed for – if you said mass transit, or farmland preservation you lose – for an outer-outerbelt highway around Charlotte.

Carpenter then unfurled a large map of the route of this mythical highway, long lusted after by suburban land developers.

Because why have only one outerbelt if you can have two? Haven't we all seen how well Charlotte's first outerbelt has relieved congestion, led to smoothly flowing traffic, trimmed the region's carbon footprint, helped create walkable neighborhoods and made transit easier to implement? Imagine the wonders if we could spread our Pineville- and Ballantyne-style development all over the region's farmland?

Then-state Sen. Jerry Blackmon had conceived of the idea of a 13-county outer-outerbelt, 30 to 50 miles from Charlotte, in the mid-1980s. Planning continued throughout the 1980s, out of the public eye although land speculators such as Robert Pittenger, later a state senator, bought land along its route. In 1993 its cost was estimated at $2 billion.

Although the Carolinas Transportation Compact backed it, there was a Carolinas Urban Coalition of nearby cities which opposed it, foreseeing that the sprawl it would engender would empty their struggling downtowns. "I find the idea inconceivable," said then-Charlotte City Council member Lynn Wheeler. "You could take gasoline and pour it on the city of Charlotte and the other cities and light a match. It would have the same effect."

The newly elected Gov. Jim Hunt was not a fan. "The outer-outerloop strikes me as just being a little farfetched," he said in early 1993. "I'd be very concerned about spending money on that." And after that, Observer articles on the outer-outerbelt dwindled. And in the intervening two decades thinking about urban transportation has changed dramatically. Highways have been shown not to relieve congestion, as hoped, but to create it. Willy-nilly suburban growth has been shown to be, in many cases, a net loss for local government revenues rather than the hoped-for boost.

As Carpenter (who's also a big backer of the dubious Garden Parkway through rural southern Gaston County) spoke, I noticed that the meeting's chair, Dennis Rash – a former N.C. transportation board member and a one-time key lieutenant to ex-Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl Jr. – wasn't saying much. I asked him later about the outer-outerbelt idea. Is that what we are to see from a group looking for regional transportation planning? He noted, drily, that the old outer-outerbelt idea had been conceived during a time when the federal government was paying for 90 percent of the cost of highway projects. Those days are gone, probably for good.

And that should be the fate, as well, of yet another outerbelt highway through the Piedmont around Charlotte. Please, no more rising from the crypt for this one.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

I'm taking a week off

I'm on furlough the week of March 21-27, and no work is allowed. So I'll be taking it easy - sort of - and back on the blog Monday March 28. Happy spring, everyone.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

City pulls plug on proposed loud music measure

City Attorney Mac McCarley tells me the city staff is pulling the plug on a chunk of its proposal to change the city's noise ordinance. A new version will be offered Monday at the 3 p.m. public hearing that, McCarley says, aims for a balance that won't hurt performers and bars that aren't causing problems for neighbors.

The ordinance change has made a lot of musicians, bar owners and nightlife denizens angry, and McCarley said, they've been heard. (Read some of the Observer's coverage here -- Mark Washburn - "New noise rule is music to our ears" ; "Pub owners decry new noise limits" ; "Debate over outdoor music in Charlotte")

The proposed change to the ordinance would have barred "sound amplification equipment out of doors or directed out of doors" for live music or "other forms of entertainment" at a business if the amplifiers are less than 400 feet from residences. It would also bar amplified sound outdoors (note the outdoors, please. It doesn't apply to indoor music) at a business that's audible on residentially zoned property.

When I talked to McCarley about noon Friday, he said he and his staff were still working through exactly what they'd propose to the City Council but that it would be aimed at businesses that cause problems and try to protect those that don't.

How (not) to be a creative city

I was recently walking down the sidewalk beside the Lynx light rail, and I spotted some colorful banners alongside the tracks. They added a festive touch, I thought. Then I read them.

They said: "Create" and "Splurge" and "Thrive" and my favorite, "Groove." I found this interesting. It had the flowery fragrance of promotional marketing. I checked. Yep, the banners are part of a rebranding effort for South End.

Now I am not against promotional marketing. In an advertising-based industry, how could I be?

But somehow, being ordered to "Thrive" reminded me of a time, years ago, when the walls of the Observer building sprouted posters ordering us all to "Work Smarter." As if we would all slap our heads in recognition of our heretofore obvious stupidity and decide to mend our ways.

The promotional effort, courtesy of Charlotte Center City Partners, the nonprofit uptown advocacy group that also serves South End, partnered with a South End design/branding firm. They want to highlight "the brand attributes of the district" which they believe to be shopping (hence, "splurge"), residential ("thrive"), art galleries and creative businesses ("create"), and hospitality and nightlife ("groove").

I called three creative types from around town, plus my college-aged daughter and asked if anyone ever says "groove" any more. "I don't think so," said commercial film producer Peggie Porter. "I hear people say 'groovy' in a sort of ironic way."

"No one I know says groove," said the text my daughter sent from Chapel Hill.

Filmmaker Dorne Pentes, though, said he still sometimes hears people say "groove."

What about the rest of the banners and being ordered to "create"?

"I think that would be the least likely thing to make me feel creative," Porter said. "It sounds like Chamber of Commerce stuff to me," Pentes said.

As one branding/marketing expert told me (no name because this person needs business and can't afford to tick people off), "In the brand world, what things ARE is most important, not what you say they are. That's what we focus on with clients. Get them away from slogans."

Colorful banners? Nice touch. Sloganeering in a supposedly "artsy" part of the city? Not so creative.

A note about spacing: For some reason today refuses to put spaces between the paragraphs. I tried deleting the old spaces, putting in new "enter" lines, the works. No luck. Does anyone have any solutions for this?

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Why DO conservatives hate trains?

Found while looking up something else: An interesting piece in, "Why do conservatives hate trains so much?"

Writer David Weigel dissects the opposition and notes it's more libertarian than conservative (other than a delusional George Will line about trains – "...the real reason for progressives' passion for trains is their goal of diminishing Americans' individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism." Whoa, George, you might wanna dial back the paranoia a tad.)

Libertarians, Weigel notes, don't have a problem with transportation. What they and some Republicans have a problem with is federal spending on transportation. But then, the article goes on to note, "Amtrak passengers pay more of the cost of their transportation than do drivers on the interstate. About 62 percent of Amtrak's operating expenses, according to the Department of Transportation, comes from fares. According to the Federal Highway Administration, the percentage of highway spending paid for by users—in the form of gas taxes and tolls—is headed below 50 percent."

Weigel goes on to quote other reasons some conservatives don't like rail transit, although little of what he reports as their reasons square with the reality that highways are just as expensive, just as prone to go over budget, just as heavily subsidized.

Ultimately, in my opinion (and Weigel gets at some of this) conservatives don't like rail because liberals do. Some people will do anything in order not to be in the same camp with people whose beliefs they disdain. This is not limited to politics, of course, and seems to be a general part of human nature. Have you ever been around UNC and Duke basketball fans? They make liberal-conservative spats look tame.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Old depot may yet escape bulldozer

Photo courtesy Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission

The historic passenger depot off Freedom Drive, the Thrift P&N station, may yet be saved from demolition. A complicated property deal is in the works, involving the depot's owner, CSX railway, as well as the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission and the N.C. Department of Transportation.

As I first wrote in November (City may seek landmark demolition) the station dates to the Piedmont and Northern electric suburban rail system developed by power company and tobacco magnate James B. Duke and power company executive William States Lee (who ran the forerunner of Duke Energy). The railway opened in 1912; passenger service ended in 1951. The station, designed by prominent Charlotte architect C.C. Hook (he designed the Duke Mansion and old City Hall), is the last P&N passenger station in Mecklenburg County.

It's a designated landmark, but in North Carolina designated landmarks can be demolished if the owner desires. The old depot was caught up in the city's new, well-intentioned nonresidential building code, adopted last April and aimed at cleaning up dilapidated, blighted buildings. CSX hadn't kept the old depot in good repair, and after an inspection the city ordered repairs or demolition. CSX applied for a permit to demolish. The city-county landmarks commission has power to delay demolitions for a year and did so.

Walter Abernethy, the city's code enforcement manager, told the City Council on Monday that an agreement had been reached to save the depot. He might have been a wee bit prematurely optimistic. Dan Morrill, the consulting director for the landmarks commission, says that CSX has
has agreed to withdraw its demolition application for a year to let NCDOT and the landmarks commission try to put together this scenario:

• NCDOT acquires property nearby, across track. If it succeeds, NCDOT allows the depot to be moved onto that new site.
• CSX would then donate the station to the HLC. The HLC would move the station to the new site and restore it for an interim adaptive reuse. CSX might donate some money for the move and restoration, Morrill said.
• If and when NCDOT acquires the former P&N track for passenger use (it owns about 15 miles of the railway, some near uptown Charlotte but mostly in Gaston County where re-opening freight operations) then NCDOT would buy the station from the HLC for use as a passenger. But currently NCDOT has no plans for passenger rail along the line.

Obviously, the plan hinges on NCDOT acquiring land. But if all the pieces fall into place – still a big if – in a weird sort of irony the demolition threat may well end up having saved the old depot from what was starting to look like "demolition by neglect."

Monday, March 07, 2011

NCDOT chief: No more bypasses of bypasses

Don't expect the state to build your city a bypass to compensate for the existing bypass your local governments have glopped up, State Transportation Secretary Gene Conti said today. "Those days are gone," he said.

OK, he didn't say "glopped up." That's my description. Conti dropped by the Observer editorial board today in between local meetings in town – a business roundtable at UNC Charlotte, and he'll be at the 5 p.m. Charlotte City Council meeting for a discussion about recommendations for the Independence Boulevard project (also see this link, for more information).

He was being questioned about two toll road projects, the so-called Garden Parkway in Gaston County (See "Money-waster road will induce sprawl"), and the proposed Monroe Bypass. Both highways are needed, he said. That's his story and he's sticking to it, obviously. After all, the legislature has ordered them both, and Conti's job is to produce the roads he's charged with.

Neither of those highways, of course, is worth the taxpayer money that will be spent. But the Monroe bypass is at least an attempt, however uncreative, to ease a terribly unpleasant drive along U.S. 74 through Monroe and Union County.

The problem, of course, is that you can hardly go anywhere in North Carolina, or even in the country, and not find a state-taxpayer-built highway envisioned as a "bypass" that has become a traffic nightmare because the local government involved allowed extreme highway glop to be built along it. Even places as comparatively traffic free as Albemarle have clogged bypasses. Shelby wants a bypass of its bypass. They are all what former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory has referred to as "corridors of crap."

So, I asked Conti, should the state's taxpayers reward those towns with another new bypass?

His reply: "Well, no."

"All of us would benefit from a much greater collaboration on those growth issues," he said. He said the DOT is trying to work to bring local governments more into transportation discussions.
"The days of just trying to continually build bypasses of bypasses, those days are gone," he said.

So Shelby, Albemarle, Asheboro, Ramseur and all the other N.C. towns that have allowed corridors of crap along your state highways, be forewarned.

The realist in me, though, requires me to mention this: If the legislature orders a highway to be built, as it did via the Highway Trust Fund of the late 1980s, there's not much a DOT secretary can do about it.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Historic church gets saved on Seigle Ave.

It looks as if the Seigle Avenue Presbyterian Church sanctuary won't be demolished. Neighbors, church members and other interested parties found a local builder-developer who has contracted to buy the old church property. Monday night the Charlotte City Council granted a 90-day delay in the city's demolition order.

As I wrote in my Jan. 28 op-ed, "Once-loved sanctuary faces the end," the church may not be an architectural gem, but it and its congregation played a notable role in ongoing efforts here to create more racially integrated congregations. It was, I wrote, "a small congregation, racially integrated for more than 40 years. For decades that 1950 sanctuary was home to a group of African-American and white Christians puzzling their way through barriers of race, income, gender, class and other inequities – a journey so difficult that many other people and groups in Charlotte have not really begun it."

The congregation split over a variety of issues, with many long-time former members of both races joining Caldwell Memorial Presbyterian Church. The remaining Seigle members moved up the street to another building five years ago and put the old property on the market. But the real estate slowdown, the three buildings' bad condition and the lack of parking made it a difficult sale. The city's new building code for non-residential property, when applied to the church property, resulted in a demolition order. In January the City Council granted a 30-day demolition delay, after the church's real estate agent said he thought he had found a buyer.

Monday night, the buyer himself – Brandon Brown of Green City Development – told the City Council he would close on the property in about a week and asked for 150 days' delay in the demolition order so he could tear down the oldest building and start repairing the sanctuary and fellowship hall. He's also asking to buy 2 city-owned acres behind the church to use for more parking; those negotiations will be more complex and his purchase of the church isn't contingent upon that separate land purchase.

Brown said he'd like to turn the church sanctuary into a restaurant (he didn't use the example of Bonterra in Dilworth, but I will) and the fellowship hall into a coffee shop or office. The City Council gave him a 90-day extension of the demolition. Brown was good with that.

The city's nonresidential building code is well-intentioned but it's having the effect of threatening historic landmark buildings, as I wrote in November's "City May Seek Landmark Demolition." (The Seigle Avenue church building wasn't a landmark.)

Observer file photo below showing the front of the sanctuary was taken in 1993.