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Charlotte to Columbus: Investing in Transit Key to Growth

Brent Warren Brent Warren Charlotte to Columbus: Investing in Transit Key to GrowthCharlotte LYNX Light Rail pulls into the Bland Street station — Photo by Prasit Frazee.
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Charlotte, North Carolina opened its first light rail line in November of 2007, a nine-mile stretch of rail extending south from downtown on which ridership soon soared. Work is now underway on extending that line another 12 miles to the north – connecting downtown to the University of North Carolina at Charlotte – while work on phase one of a downtown streetcar line just wrapped up this summer. Previous to those improvements, Charlotte also completed a large expansion of its bus network.

Paving the way for all of this transit investment was the approval of a half-cent sales tax by Charlotte voters in 1998. That vote provided the funding to implement a wide-ranging vision – laid out in the 2025 Integrated Land Use and Transit Plan – that also includes additional light rail, streetcar, and Bus Rapid Transit lines that have yet to be built.

Bob Morgan, President and CEO of the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce, was invited by the Central Ohio Transit Authority to share the story of how his city came to embrace transit as a key investment in its future. Morgan gave the keynote speech at at COTA’s annual luncheon, held on August 20th at the Hyatt Regency.

Columbus Underground had a chance to sit down with Morgan after his speech to get his take on Charlotte’s journey; from a car-centric place where transit was seen as a frill best left for bigger cities, to a community that fully supports its trains – and the increased density and urbanity that comes with them.

Q: Among our readers there’s been a lot of interest in and debate about transit in Columbus, specifically the prospect of developing a light rail or streetcar system in the city. I think they’d be very interested in your take on Charlotte’s journey, especially with your role at the Chamber and how the business community fits into the story.

A: Since 1999 we’ve invested over $2.5 billion in our transit program, and about $1.25 billion of that is light rail and streetcar investments. We had a $135 million expansion of our bus system, about $100 million has gone into facilities, and about $25 million into technology.

So there’s a master plan, or a vision, that is motivated by several things, one of which is, we’re the 18th-largest city in America, with a metropolitan area of two million people, and we think we’re going to double that population in the next 20 or 30 years. How in the world do we move people and product in and through our region? And we think the answer is in the investment in a comprehensive transportation infrastructure, and that includes various modes of transit as well as roads and highways and bike paths and sidewalks and a growing airport.

In economic development, there’s a fascinating dynamic – do jobs go where people are or do people go where jobs are? Well, the answer is, a little bit of both, and in Charlotte, if we can keep people moving to Charlotte to join our workforce, companies are going to want to come and tap into that workforce. And if companies keep coming, and providing jobs, people are going to keep coming to Charlotte, attracted by those jobs. And so it becomes a self-fulfilling cycle.

One of the ways we keep people coming – young people in particular – is to show that we’re investing in our future. Young people aren’t moving to the country in this day and age, they are attracted to the urban lifestyle. Transit is a part of creating an urban lifestyle. It allows for transit-oriented development, i.e. density – density of jobs, density of housing options, densities along the corridor.

For companies that are looking to tap into the growing population that’s already here, and for companies that are looking to recruit top-talent from around the world, that talent wants to see a community that offers all kinds of different options. If you’re coming from a London or a San Francisco, transit is just a part of what you’re used to. So we see it all as a way of keeping Charlotte competitive as we look to continue to grow and attract both jobs and people.

Q: When you were having the conversation about funding this vision in the 1990’s, was this a controversial idea? Was it hard to convince people that this was a worthy investment? Particularly in the business community…or was pressure coming from the business community?

A: The pressure came from the business community, aided by a progressive bi-partisan collection of elected officials at the local and state level, and aided by a progressive-minded real estate development community that understood and understands the general proposition of “if you build it they will come.” But even with those elements, we did have to overcome something, call it a cultural bias of the south – that transit is a frill, transit is a plaything, transit is for other, bigger cities, it’s not for us.

So the original referenda that went to the public in 1998, we did win that with 57% support, but that means 43% voted no. Now, we had another yardstick – fast forward to 2007, when a repeal question was forced onto the ballot. Those who were trying to kill the transit tax were able to get enough signatures to get onto the ballot.

Repeal was defeated 70% to 30%, and so the opposition has basically not been heard from since. These days, it’s not a question of why are you building transit, it’s why aren’t you building it faster?

Q: Was part of that due to the fact that the system was up and running already?

A: No, this was three weeks before the light rail line was scheduled to open.

We’re not a deep south kind of city, few of us were actually born in Charlotte – it’s a city of people who’ve come from elsewhere, many of us have seen the more urban type of lifestyle, and we’ve seen transit, and what it can do for a community. There was significant growth in our population – from ‘98 to ’07 – of that kind of mindset. There were also a lot of people who said, hey, you’ve already begun, you’re either going to use the sales tax, or if not, you’re going to have to use my property taxes, and I’d rather you not use my property taxes.

Senior citizens were a key part of that story – in 1998 they were generally opposed to the half-cent sales tax for transit. That dynamic had changed in 2007 – they did not want their property tax to be used, so many of them voted to defeat repeal.

Q: What’s your message to a place like Columbus, where the business community has not really jumped on the idea of transit the way they have in some other places. What’s the business argument for this type of investment? You mentioned attracting talent, what are some other arguments that you make, in terms of your members, in the chamber

A: You know, every community is different, and every community has to decide for itself what its aspirations are. For Charlotte, we wanted to do a couple of things. Charlotte aspires to grow. And to do that we’re going to have to attract young people. And as I’ve already said, young people are attracted more and more to an urban environment, and transit is a part of that. Charlotte is uniquely committed to the development of its central business district as the premier job market, but also the front door to our entire region. So transit that includes five corridors that feed into the central business district, it’s a way to help improve the health of the central business district – that has benefits throughout the community and throughout the region.

We think the investment we’re making in transit is an important part of the product we sell when we’re trying to convince companies to move to Charlotte. We almost never say, hey, you ought to move to Charlotte so you can be on the light rail line. We do always talk about Charlotte as a city that is investing in its future. We are playing offense. We aspire to grow, we aspire to attract young people, we aspire to attract people from all over the planet. We are making a significant investment in our transportation infrastructure – that’s a visible manifestation of that reality, and it helps us to sell the product that is Charlotte.

Q: So you had the key votes in 1998 and 2007, when did light rail actually start running?

A: November of 2007. When we passed the sales tax in 1998, there was an immediate expansion of our bus network, in the first decade, well over 50% of the money went to fund an expansion of the bus system. Now, the bus system is not sexy, but yet it serves a huge number of people. The first light rail line opened Thanksgiving weekend of 2007.

Q: So in terms of the general popularity of the idea of light rail, do you think it’s taken off as the rail has gone in?

A: Ridership projections were far exceeded, almost from the very beginning. People don’t prefer it just during the commuter rush hour. If there’s a parade on a Saturday morning, or a Panthers game on a Sunday afternoon, or a Hornets game on a weeknight, the trains are full, from suburbanites who prefer using the light rail to get to those kinds of events.

Q: Is it fair to say then, that you’ve won over the skeptics that there were in Charlotte?

A: Well, since that repeal campaign, they’re hard to find.

For ongoing discussion on transportation in Columbus, CLICK HERE to visit our Messageboard.

For information on COTA’s NextGen initiative, visit www.cota.com/nextgen

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