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Charlotte to Columbus: Investing in Transit Key to Growth

 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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  • Analogue Kid

    Great interview, and brings up some important points.

    First, I worry that our city outside of groups like Columbus 2020 is starting to get complacent about economic development. Charlotte strikes me as a place that is hungry to succeed, whereas Columbus is starting to fall into the trap of assuming that we’ve done well in the past so that will continue just because it always has.

    That kind of mentality leads people to question whether there is any need to make further investments not just in transit but in other aspects of our city and its infrastructure to support future job growth.

    Look at the loud opposition to demolishing the City Center Mall for Columbus Commons for example. Many people said it would be a complete flop. The fact that it was anything but a failure hasn’t really registered with people. It just seems so hard to sell most Columbusites on the idea that a small public investment will beget a larger private investment and ultimately pay for itself.

    The other thing that wasn’t mentioned is that North Carolina had a Democratically controlled statehouse during the time this transit system was conceived and built. With the outright hostility towards non-auto transportation projects shown by the GOP, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Ohio General Assembly passed a bill to ban Columbus from building a system. Sounds extreme, but that’s where we are today.

  • bjones7

    Is it me or does it sound like COTA is, just NOW interested in light rail? Say COTA does follow suite and some how a 1/2 cent tax increase is put up for vote and it passes. That most likely wouldn’t be until after 2016 right? I mean COTA has their own levy up next year. No way they/the city would want to put the 1/2 cent tax with the levy. With the way COTA and Columbus work when it comes to transit alternatives, we wouldn’t see Light Rail or Streetcar until like 2030 with the above model plan.

    I still don’t understand why doesn’t the REGION invest 1st. Why does it have to be JUST the city who invests in passenger rail? In my opinion a regional rail/commuter train (and or airport train) would work the best as a start up line. I still haven’t seen any proof this wouldn’t work.

    • COTA has been interested in light rail for a long time. There have been multiple studies and projects over the past 20 years, but none have ever gotten off the ground.

      Some good reading material from the archives…

      http://freepdfhosting.com/ef7f56d25a.pdf

      • heresthecasey

        Now there’s a blast from the past. What could have been…

        Le sigh.

    • johnwonderbread

      There was (federal) money put forward for regional investment (Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago). Gov. Kasich sent the money back to Washington.

  • chaserdanger

    Id actually say most of the citizens of Columbus are rather apathetic to public transit.

    When I lived in Columbus (merion village) and I took COTA to campus for work, and Bexley for my Capital MBA, my wife took the bus up to Clintonville. We had a car and our friends thought we were utterly absurd. This is from the same generation where I now have friends that are like— why doesnt Columbus have a train yet. Its because until the driver-centric mindset is changed, nothing will come to fruit for public transit in Columbus.

    My wife and I enjoy the urban lifestyle, so we upped and moved to Chicago. We got rid of said car, and take the train/bus everywhere.

    • “until the driver-centric mindset is changed, nothing will come to fruit for public transit in Columbus…”

      I think it can easily be said the other way around as well… until public transit is improved and rail-based transit comes to Columbus, the driver-centric mindset will never change.

      Unfortunately, very much a chicken and egg situation here.

      • chaserdanger

        Agreed.

        When I first moved to Columbus in 2008, I was told a part of the parking tickets was being allocated to public transit and then that was stopped several years later. I was a huge advocate of that as I didnt mind getting a parking ticket going towards public transit- a greater good out of a consequence. Then they shelved it and I believe the parking tickets went into a general pool.

        I do believe once a rail line happens, people will change their mind.

        In a city with a much more driver-centric mind as Detroit, the business community rallied around it and is implementing a light rail line against ALL objections. I think Columbus can do it.

  • CbusIslander

    Charlotte got lucky and their initial vote ballot issue passed. I believe Columbus had a transit vote during the same year but was rejected. Until another one appears on the ballot in the near future (with a local funding source) rail will be difficult to start here. Charlotte still knows sprawl quite well and will probably increase with the recent completion of I-485, imo.

    Some interesting follow up questions for my information: What is the average rent along their transit lines and are they including ‘affordable housing’ projects?

  • Zyro

    I fear we may be too late with this. If we can’t somehow get rail with the new Connect Columbus, Columbus 2020, inSight 2050, and the MORPC stuff going on, I doubt we ever will be to get it.

    Such a shame. I’m being pessimistic here, though. Someone should tell me why they think it WILL happen in, say, the next 10 years.

  • Charlotte_Transplant

    I’m from Columbus and have lived in Charlotte going on 12 years. I will tell you that this project was immediately over budget (alot) before the first track was laid and it’s been a big burden on the Mecklenburg County tax payer. For starters, the ridership didn’t sore. What did sore was crime from gang members on the platforms, the tax burden and the budget for the trains. I know this is considered part of “modern” growth but this train has been a boondoggle from day one!

    • heresthecasey

      C’mon dude – *soar

      • Charlotte_Transplant

        No I meant “sore” as in a sore on the taxpayers arse! They weren’t honest about anything on the Charlotte rail system!

        • Zyro

          It sounds like it’s been fairly successful, especially with ridership numbers. What exactly is being mislead? Genuinely curious.

          Regardless, even if true, I think this might be a case where extra scrutiny is applied to an infrastructure project because it’s not a highway. People don’t bat an eye at a $2 billion interchange, but a $600 million rail project gets scrutinized and analyzed to hell.

    • OwnTerms

      Just last month I visited my Columbus-native buddy who is now living in Charlotte. She lives in South End and her apartment building is directly on the rail line right next to a stop. In the 3 days I was there, we used Uber a ton and never even considered the train (which, by the way, seemed to pass by pretty infrequently). I never saw anyone waiting at any of the stops all weekend. Maybe people in other neighborhoods use it to get to work, or for Panthers games (8 Sundays a year), but honestly I was pretty underwhelmed by it’s presence in the young-professional and downtown areas. I asked some people what they though about the train and received mostly blank stares. It just didn’t ever strike me as convenient or even necessary, but then again I was only there for 3 days and did not experience the whole city by any means..

  • The Sarcastic Medved

    Having lived in Columbus for 20+ years and moved away to better climes, it seems to me that CMH will never have a good transit structure due to the fact that voters will NEVER vote for it.
    It will take a private funded company to come in to build it and run it. COTA is a joke.

    • lbl

      is there anybody out there that can convince Wexner that rail would be good thing for business? he seems to be able to plunk down $30mil for a new (un-needed) Veteran’s Memorial. and how much did he spend to get his name on a Hospital? if he thinks its worthy – he funds it.
      now somebody just needs to make him think its his idea. and then all his followers will get in line.

  • This article is too depressing to me. I echo what the others have said in that it seems like Columbus, its business titans, real estate developers, gov’t. leaders and mainly its suburban voters have gotten complacent after several years of growth and getting on top 10 lists (rarely are we ever in the top 2 or 3, though). From my vantage point, I doubt that there will be light rail or any kind of non-bus mass transit for at least 15-20 years, if ever. The below quote sums it up, I think:

    “What’s your message to a place like Columbus…”

    “…every community has to decide for itself what its aspirations are…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…”

    I wonder if Columbus has any aspirations? Or, are we going to stay a large small town?

    • Depressing? The alternative would be to not talk about rail transit at all. That would be depressing.

      • It may not be depressing to you, but it is to me. Is that forbidden on your site?

        It’s certainly good to talk about rail, but it seems like mostly we’re preaching to the choir, and it’s the city leaders, business “titans”, etc. that are the ones that need to take action.

        • You’re certainly allowed to be as depressed as you want to be.

          The one-on-one commentary that we’re having may be preaching to the choir, but these article are very well read by many local leaders. Keeping that conversation going in a place where they see it is important IMHO.

  • Discouraged Democrat

    Unfortunately, travel by car is still too easy in Columbus for many people to perceive a need for improved transit service, and low gas prices don’t help. People who can’t afford a car may be less likely to vote for a variety of reasons.

    Also, the climate is very different here than in Charlotte. Waiting for a bus or train in the wintertime in Columbus doesn’t appeal to many, but neither does the idea of driving in an icy mess.

    Too many voters live in areas unserviceable by bus, much less rail, due to the low density sprawl.

    Columbus does have several corridors ideal for light rail but by the time the community is finally covinced of the need, the cost will be much higher. The national government needs to provide greater incentives for light rail, such that communities like Columbus can’t say no. After all, we can’t take care of the roadways we already have, so let’s direct some more funds to an alternative instead of building more.

    • There are many cities that have colder winters than Columbus that also have rail transit. New York, Chicago and Seattle just to name a few obvious ones.

      Three months of cold does not trump a community’s ability to develop mass transit. That’s a poor excuse.

  • peanutnozone

    I really wish Columbus would get off the ground with transit. I honestly think it really has most to do with partisan politics.

    I live in Maryland. A very deep blue state — a democratic stronghold. Compared to most of the US we’re a transit utopia — we have three commuter lines, a metro, light rail, 24-hour bus lines, a free circulator, amtrak, the works.

    AND YET, when our current (very GOP) governor was able to secure funding (half from federal government and half from state budget) for TWO new rail lines to connect DC metro stations and an east-west line in Baltimore City, he dismissed the city rail line and cut the DC line saying that it was a “boondoggle” (I hate that word, what does it even mean, it’s so dismissive!) and using the money earmarked for transit to improve hardly used roads in rural mountain counties. This was after artists were chosen for station designs and rights of way had been obtained for the underground and above ground portions of the new line.

    I feel like a defector that has left my beloved hometown…BUT know that these BS politicos pandering to their base that think public transit is somehow stealing people’s “freedom” or whatever it is they hate about it is a real threat to the good things these types of projects can do for a city / metro area, and can happen even in places where people are already invested in transit.

    /Rant, but seriously no matter how many people want these things those types of political boneheads will always get in the way.

    I mean, isn’t that what happened to 3C when Mr Strickland got replaced by Kasich?

    • Yes, former Gov Ted Strickland’s administration secured $400 million from the federal government for the construction and operation of the 3C Corridor, a inter-city commuter rail corridor connecting Cincinnati-Dayton-Columbus-Cleveland.

      Kasich made the campaign promise to use the funds for roads instead, which was never a feasible option.

      After elected, he returned the $400 million to the federal government, which was then redistributed to rail development projects in other states. Ohio lost it entirely.

      • Zyro

        Now THIS is depressing.

        But even if we ARE talking about it, it still depresses me. This whole thing is so frustrating. I want to be able to do something but I just don’t know what to do.

        It just sounds like an echo chamber in here. I wish us–the people here–could tell the people that actually have a say and can push for something to happen, to actually happen.

        I try my best to stay positive, but in this situation I feel so incredibly powerless that I’m not sure how to stay positive :(

  • Eugene_C

    We’ll never get rail until we can get the Ohio Contractors association and other road construction lobbies out of state government.

  • Discouraged Democrat

    Walker: New York has subways and Seattle’s winters are much milder than ours. If you’ll reread my statement, you’ll see that I’m saying that cold, snowy winters are also a good reason to use public transit — rather than driving in an “icy mess”. Gotta find something to demean anything I say, whether I’m actually saying it or not.

    • chaserdanger

      interesting response.

      clearly you haven’t been on a lot of NYC’s “subway” as a lot of the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn is above ground like Chicago’s. So yes, New Yorkers stand outside in the blistery cold as well, just not in Manhattan.

  • Columbus has spent lots of public and private money studying rail over the years (multiple times) with no plan of action. By now the public is numb on the ideal. The ironically we have more density than Charlotte, yet I just cant imagine land owners allowing rail lines (over or under ground) to cut through places like the Short North.

    • chaserdanger

      The Short North would love a rail line going right through.

  • Zyro

    I do think the argument for weather is an incredibly weak one. Some of the most transit and bike friendly cities are as cold or colder weather than ours. Minneapolis and Toronto are bastions of biking and transit and both definitely have worse weather than Columbus. Even Cleveland has more rail transit than Columbus. Boston as well–they get FEET of snow–it seems–every year.

    Not to mention Chicago, Baltimore, and Vancouver. St. Louis has comparable winters and has light rail.

    In fact, I think the cities with the weakest rail systems and the most sprawl are all warm weather climates: Phoenix, Atlanta, Houston, Austin, Dallas, San Diego, LA. I think Charlotte might actually be the outlier here.

    • chaserdanger

      Ive seen bikers in our snow blizzard last year in Chicago STILL biking to work. The weather argument is irrelevant. And quite frankly— its easier to get to work with public transit than ones own car in inclement weather anyhow.

      • Yeah, I rode my bike plenty of times last winter in below-freezing temperatures. As long as the ground is dry, it’s not hard to layer up and stay warm, especially if you’ve only got around a 10 minute ride ahead of you. ;) Walking somewhere or waiting on a COTA bus is the same story. Dress for the occasion and there’s no problem at all.

  • Zyro

    Heck, I even just thought of Pittsburgh which has a decent LRT system. People ride it all winter long.

  • Discouraged Democrat

    Yes. For many, using transit is better than driving in an “icy mess” as I said in my original statement. Still there are some people who abhor cold weather and, believe it or not, some are unable to afford the proper winter attire (or a bike). Cold is not a reason not to build transit but if you think it’s irrelevant to ridership rates you’ve not been at a COTA stop when it’s below zero.

  • Discouraged Democrat

    chaserdanger: NYC traffic congestion levels and car ownership rates make it and Columbus an apples to oranges comparison in cold, hot or any other type of weather.

    • chaserdanger

      Im not comparing the systems, just the ideology.

      Plus. I was a Columbusite for sometime who drove a car when need be but used COTA everyday. Until people just thinking the car is end all be all, public transit will take off. And for fellow millenials, this is what we want and it’ll happen one day or another. Its happening in Cincy, its happening in Detroit- both bastions of car centric people but the tide is changing for public transit. It’ll happen in Cbus as well.

  • Discouraged Democrat

    chaserdanger: I hope you’re right. For many trips, public transit is clearly much less stressful than driving and parking. I just hope that by the time your generation becomes a larger part of the voting public we old folks haven’t ignored the needs so long that worthwhile solutions are prohibitively expensive.

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