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Mecklenburg’s Transit Future

The Transit/ Land Use plan prepared by consultants for Charlotte-Mecklenburg envisions rapid transit on five corridors within the next 25 years at a cost of 1.085 billion dollars. The corridors run along existing rail and road right-of-ways; and would include rail on the corridor to Pineville, rail and busway to Davidson, and busways on the corridors to Matthews, the University area, and Charlotte-Douglas International Airport.

A referendum for a half-cent sales tax to pay mainly for operations and some capital will go to voters in the county in early November. A sales tax would mean residents and non-residents would help foot the bill for transit, not just property taxpayers in the county. One of every four Mecklenburg workers live outside the county, and the county had 7.7 million overnight visitors in 1997.

The proposed annual tax bite for a family of four would be $39 dollars more in sales tax for 25-thousand dollars income. The comparable tax bite for a four person family with 100-thousand dollars income would be $105 per year. Certain items would not be taxed. Those include food for home consumption, gasoline, prescriptions, automobiles, and liquor.

The sales tax is projected to bring in about 50 million dollars a year for transit initially, and as much as 190 million dollars a year as the tax base grows over time. This would handle operations, but a significant amount of capital costs are envisioned coming from grants from the federal government. Competition for federal funding is enormous with over 150 new light rail/transit starts going into the Federal Transit Administration planning pipeline in the past year. Federal funding would most likely pay 50 percent of capital costs (down from 80 percent). State funding matches would also be pursued.

Consultants recommend the creation of a Metropolitan Transit Commission to oversee implementation of the plan. The Commission would be composed of eight members from each participating municipality and the county. Some interests have already expressed fear such a system might become highly politicized and become unworkable. They say a full fledged transit authority is needed to assure implementation of the transit plan without political infighting.

While the proposed system may not make a large dent in the ever increasing sea of automobiles on area roads and freeways, it will give people a choice in their mobility. A 1997 study by the Texas Transportation Institute shows Charlotte ranks fourth in congestion growth among the nation's 50 largest metropolitan areas.

Rapid transit also provides a reliable alternative to tie-ups due to traffic incidents (wrecks, stalled vehicles, etc.). On average there are 25 accidents (breakdowns) on the interstates in the county during the morning peak, and 50 during the evening peak travel period.

The consultant's emphasize their plan is the most reasonable approach at this time. But for each corridor to receive federal money the recommended alternatives must undergo a Major Investment Study, which leaves the door open for modes to be changed from bus to rail on some corridors as each comes under scrutiny. Sentiment to change busway to rail has been most vocal along the Independence corridor which leads to Matthews.

Under the plan the South Corridor would get light rail to Tyvola Road within six years, and all the way to Pineville within ten years. Part of the line closest to Uptown will be upgraded for vintage trolley by 2001, and would be shared by light rail as it comes on line. The North Corridor to Davidson would not get regional rail (diesel multiple units) for ten years, but would get busway improvements in the interim. The state is eyeing extension of the North Corridor all the way to Statesville in Iredell County. The corridor could also be shared with inter-city trains linking Charlotte and Asheville.

Representatives from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Department and Charlotte Department of Transportation recently boned up on land use and transit implications of the plan at Rail Volution in Portland, Oregon. Portland is considered by many to be the model light rail city in the nation, recently opening another 17 mile extension of it's light rail system at a cost of 967 million dollars. Residents there will vote in November on a one billion dollar plan for a North-South line to complement it's existing 33 mile east-west line.

Portland's first light rail line to Gresham helped stimulate 1.3 billion dollars investment along the line in the past 12 years. The new west line has already seen almost 300 million dollars in development announced or underway. Light rail supporters in Charlotte feel light rail can also be a major catalyst for new development in conjunction with appropriate land use and zoning policies.

Posted 10/28/98