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Ticket to Ride

by Jill Walker

January 4,2005

As in the children’s book, The Little Engine That Could, advocates for a light rail system in Charlotte will reach the crest of a troublesome journey in early 2007 (fingers crossed) to the chant of “I knew we could, I knew we could, I knew we could.”

That is when the South Corridor Light Rail Project is scheduled for completion. Costing at least $400 million, the South Corridor light rail represents one spoke of the city’s five corridor 20-year transit plan, which has a current cost estimate of six billion dollars.

Let’s face it, there are numerous reasons to be skeptical about a train that will run up and down South Boulevard all day, from I-485 (where the Carolina Pavilion big boxes are) to Seventh Street. And they’ve been articulated by many people over the last couple of years, most notably Creative Loafing’s Tara Servatius, who, among other topics, explored the two consulting firms chosen to oversee our light rail and mass transit plan. Suffice it to say, they also oversaw Boston’s infamous “Big Dig” project.

Introducing light rail in Charlotte now is akin to performing plastic surgery on a 35-year-old. Too much too soon. But oh boy, wait ten or so years and the benefits will bring a smile to your face, without all the lines. There really isn’t a perfect time to introduce light rail to a city. Too early and everybody questions why, too late and the land costs are so prohibitive everybody questions why you waited so long.

Light rail on the south corridor won’t solve all of our traffic problems. In fact, it probably won’t solve any of them. What it will do, or what it can do is chart a different course for our future. If it is accompanied by the promised organic urban enclave spelled out in the South End Pedscape/Transit Station Area Plan, then it will begin to respond to some growing trends and needs in the city of Charlotte.

Most importantly, the development spurred by light rail can greatly expand housing options for many growing segments of our population. Access to affordable housing where a car is not required would benefit many of Charlotte’s lower waged citizens. Surveys of older people, empty nesters and young ‘creatives’ indicate a strong preference for access to mass transit, as well as 18-hour neighborhoods that have a sense of place.

The city is encouraging population density in the vicinity of all the transit stations. Transit oriented development, or TOD, is the comprehensive approach to this effort. The success of light rail lies solely on occupancy rates, so it is no surprise that the city will do everything in its power to assure that the trains are filled. Ergo, TOD, which involves government enhancements to a neighborhood, some developer incentives and a new TOD zoning classification.

Developments within a ½ mile radius of transit stations are all zoned TOD. An unusual aspect of TOD zoning is that it sets minimums for density requirements and maximums for parking requirements. For instance, a residential structure must have a minimum of 15 units per acre and a maximum of 1.6 parking spaces per unit. While this might seem innocuous, it does open the door to very large scale projects that possibly won’t have adequate parking. Why would a developer provide 1.6 spaces per unit if he/she can get away with less? And why build 15 units per acre if 90 can fit?

Scale is critical to the success of this new development. Perhaps the city needs to tighten some of these guidelines surrounding TOD, or phase in some of the minimum and maximum requirements, in order to preserve the existing residential character of the surrounding neighborhoods. And, if developers will get a free ride on parking, why not explore return compensations from them, like contributions to public art or transit passes to residents?

Despite all this, light rail and the new urban development that will accompany it, could be just what Charlotte needs. And, who knows, someday it just might just entice my son back from Hoboken, where he took his recent college degree, big dreams and starting salary, and bought himself a subway ticket.

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