Charlotte rail leads to millions in development, officials say
CHARLOTTE, N.C - Mayor Anthony Foxx wisely declined to predict the outcome of last week's football game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and his hometown Carolina Panthers in what turned out to be a 20-3 Bucs' victory. Foxx was more certain about what could be in store for Tampa if taxpayers choose in November to fund light rail, which in Charlotte has exceeded 20-year ridership projections in its first three years of operation while adding to the region's economic development arsenal. Since light rail opened in Charlotte in late 2007, $288.2 million in development near light rail stations has been completed and $522 million is under construction, despite a veritable halt in growth since the 2008 recession. The Charlotte Area Transit System projects private investment development stations will reach $1.45 billion by 2013, depending on the economic recovery. "Other people should know that now is a heckuva good time to start a transit system," Foxx said in a recent interview. "With historically low interest rates and construction prices still relatively depressed, you will get more for your dollar."While their football rivalry is well known, Tampa and Charlotte behind the scenes are fierce competitors for business development. Tampa Bay Partnership's most recent comparison of six Sunbelt cities ranked Charlotte third and Tampa Bay last in jobs, wages, housing, innovation, education and transportation. The eight-county economic development group, which heavily supports Tampa's light rail effort, also ranked Charlotte first in transportation and Tampa Bay fifth, based on commute and delay times, vehicle mileage, and transit ridership and investment per capita. Charlotte's own scorecard of seven U.S. cities ranked Austin, Texas, first, Charlotte second and Tampa seventh in its May report. That performance, along with Tampa's interest in light rail, has led a steady stream of local officials including Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio to visit Foxx and others in Charlotte. "The major revelation to me has been it's not just about laying track and running a choo-choo," said Foxx, a Democrat who won the mayoral election in November. "It's really about land use even more than transportation. If you get the land use benefit out of transit, it's going to have more of an impact on your growth patterns and livability." Another revelation was that transit is hard to understand in the abstract, and until a rail line is built, it remains abstract, Foxx said. "People on the street have trouble seeing something that's not there," said Foxx, who was on Charlotte's City Council during the last two years of the rail's construction. "You have to paint a word picture for the community of what will become different." Former Mayor Pat McCrory, a Republican who lost his 2008 bid for governor in North Carolina's election year surge for Democrats and Barack Obama, said rail was not in his vocabulary when he took office in 1995. Then he began reading dusty plans for transportation options and Charlotte's road engineers told McCrory the city had no more room to expand highways. "I became enamored of looking for options to improve the quality of life of the region along with improving the economy of the region," McCrory said. "If a city falls behind, its business falls behind and businesses will leave." Charlotte voters approved a half-cent referendum to fund light rail in 1998, but a handful of rail opponents organized a ballot initiative to repeal the tax in 2007 -- two weeks before light rail was to begin operation, after news reports of cost overruns that critics said were 130 percent higher than an initial estimate of $227 million for construction. The repeal effort failed with 70 percent voting against it. "We had every reason to believe that the Charlotte 'starter line' of 10 miles and 15 stations would be a success, just as other cities had experienced success with their starter projects," said Tina Votaw, the Charlotte Area Transit System's transit oriented development specialist. "The critics by and large were local folks who, I would say, had not experienced this type of transportation option previously and, in some cases, were folks who did not believe that the initial starter alignment would do anything for them per se." Average weekday ridership has exceeded 16,000, compared with original projections of 9,100. Light rail offers a commuter alternative to and from downtown Charlotte, the nation's second largest financial center, investment that's added to the tax base, and provides a powerful symbol that Charlotte invests in its future in a smart way, chamber president Bob Morgan said. "Very few companies put their offices on light rail, but they like being a part of a city that is making that kind of investment," Morgan said. "We have to show people that when they live here they have options - a house in the suburbs, a condo along the transit corridor." Lisa Fiscus, a Bank of America employee with an MBA from Duke University, commutes to work with a five minute ride on the light rail system, known as Lynx. "I have a car but I don't use it very much," said Fiscus, who stopped by a recent downtown Charlotte "Alive After Five" gathering with friends before heading home on the train. The event draws up to 4,000 people on Thursdays through Saturdays. Michael Wagoner, who works at Johnson & Wales University in downtown Charlotte, moved near an outlying Lynx station to be able to commute to work and save an average of $150 a week on what he had paid for parking and gasoline. Still, Charlotte's light rail retains vociferous critics, including representatives of a Raleigh-based John Locke Foundation think tank that's dedicated to principles of limited government. "It's been a disaster from start to finish," said Michael Sanera, the foundation's director of research and local government studies. Sanera, who has a doctorate in political science from the University of Colorado, cited cost overruns he said ran 40 to 50 percent. Fare revenue amounts to about 25 percent of the light rail operating cost -- advocates say reflects that strong performance, but Sanera says that means taxpayers are subsidizing the system. "We have 19th century technology for a new city like Charlotte that grew up after World War II," Sanera said. "The problem is it does not run where people want to go. You have to move people around the periphery (where most work), not downtown." CATS chief executive, Carolyn Flowers, who previously was chief operations officer for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority, sees things differently. "We are a victim of our own success," Flowers said, referring to outlying communities that want their share of expansion plans now. The furthermost station from downtown is drawing cars in its free parking lot from nearby South Carolina. Chuck Sykes, treasurer of Tampa Bay's pro-rail group and a Charlotte native, said Tampa's citizens must make a qualitative judgment about investing in modern transit. "This is the people's chance to make a choice," said Sykes, chief executive of Tampa-based Sykes Enteprises, which contributed $50,000 to the light-rail campaign. "We have to stop reacting to things and say this is what we are going to make happen."
Reporter Ted Jackovics can be reached at 813-259-7817.