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Right of Way

by Kelly Chopus

April 6,2007

Warning: the opinions expressed below are indeed my own and do not necessarily represent the views of this magazine, its editor, my employer, business associates, husband, friends, family, co-workers, neighbors or anyone I have ever met. I, of course, do hope that after reading, you too will express the same opinions if and when you are called to action: VOTE pro-light rail.

Now that I have your attention, let me say that light rail is good for Charlotte and our community. I am going to wax on all about light rail. Stop reading if you must, but take away this: light rail is the next step in Charlotte’s evolution as a real city, for business and for citizens. Having re-located here from a similarly sized city which developed a light rail system, I do feel qualified to wax.

The voters of Charlotte-Mecklenburg approved in 1998 a new sales tax for a 2025 Integrated Transit/Land Use Plan that featured the development of five corridors to utilize light rail and rapid bus transit. The 77 mile, $467 million capital plan was characterized by planners as helping the region to meet federal air quality requirement and reducing the total vehicle miles traveled in the region. Visionary goals.

It is only one line…for now. The project is besieged by cost overruns and a keen perception of mismanagement of federal, state and local funds. We can fix both of these challenges by holding responsible people accountable and making a leadership change if necessary.

What we will not be able to fix if we ditch the light rail plan and vote for a repeal of the sales tax is lost business opportunities, like conventions, trade shows or new Fortune 500 companies choosing to re-locate here. We won’t be able to replace lost quality of life opportunities like cleaner air, less road rage and more access for people who can’t afford a car or chose to live without one. And further, we won’t get back the chance to be a hip, more modern city with the ability to attract that creative class we keep hearing about. We might as well just call up Raleigh and say “uncle,” and give them the crown and sash of “Best City.”

Mass public transportation is sorely needed in this part of the Piedmont. Who has not suffered heat stroke in late July, sitting in traffic watching the fumes from our gas tanks evaporate with every dizzying second of idling? Charlotte light rail, the 9.6-mile South Corridor line, extends from central Charlotte to near the Interstate 485 expressway, parallel to South Boulevard. Part of it uses an abandoned Norfolk Southern Railroad right of way, and part will run alongside NS tracks that will remain in freight service. Commuters will jump on this train to flee the hassle of our choked highways.

In Salt Lake City, my other hometown, light rail was built in time for the 2002 Winter Olympic Games and the crush of sophisticated Europeans we expected. Wouldn’t you know, riders flocked onto the trains on the first day, total bus and rail ridership surged 23% – in fact, reversing a prior downward trend. Vigorous expansion of the rail system is now under way. Utahns love it. My kids loved it. It is cheap, convenient and easy to use.

Some benefits I see for Charlotteans, aside from the decrease of greenhouse emissions, and praise in Al Gore’s next Academy Award acceptance speech, are less noise from too many blaring car horns, less reliance on foreign oil (at this writing, gas prices in California are creeping toward $3.75 per gallon) and less grumbling from businesses negotiating to re-locate or start up here.

Not to mention savings. We will all use less gasoline, have fewer uptown parking nightmares and lower car maintenance bills. Access to some of the Crown’s jewels will increase for people who need it most. People without cars will have affordable transportation to jobs, entertainment and arts and cultural activities.

Light rail may even bring an increase in civility. A more relaxed and well-read workforce (you have time and opportunity to do that sort of thing on trains) is hard to beat.

Defend Charlotte. She needs your vision now. She also needs you to vote pro-light rail.

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