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Following Charlottes Lead

by Christa Wagner

September 7,2008

In the 1920s, after a Grandfather Mountain-sized investment in road development by the General Assembly, North Carolina christened itself the “good roads state.” Gone were the muddy ruts and rough riding dirt roads. They were paved over with the glittering promise of future prosperity. And now, in 2008, surely one far-sighted investment could beget another. North Carolina’s good roads could become, for this century, a good or greater transportation network that ensures mobility, accessibility and opportunity for all.

What would that look like? Many states face the looming dismal confluence of aging infrastructure and strained budgets. But despite this, or perhaps because of it, transit projects in Sun Belt cities like Charlotte, Phoenix and Houston are breaking new ground on a couple of levels. These cities’ new light rail projects are establishing both another means of travel, and, at the same time, confirming a new set of priorities: transit can work in car-loving communities.

North Carolina is positioning itself ahead of the failing infrastructure collision course, if it can be called that, through the work of a legislative study commission called for this year by Governor Easley. The committee, which will continue meeting through the end of the year, has already seen adoption of its recommendation to find funds to finance the state’s first toll road in Raleigh.

I’m a little skeptical of toll roads. But the proposal that didn’t get play -- and should have -- was a bill to create a pot of money for multi-modal transit, introduced by a Charlotte lawmaker. The bill – with a well-messaged promise of “congestion relief” in its title – would lend a big hand to smog-choked urban areas by channeling money into public transportation.

Charlotte proudly provides the model for the program, with the city’s twice-successful referenda for light rail and bus funding. Under the new bill, the state’s other urban counties could pursue the same local option. Suburban counties could make smaller assessments of their citizens. As long as there’s a thoughtful effort to unite regional planning goals with local autonomy, such a program could make a big contribution to regional connectivity and cooperation.

The North Carolina DOT currently spends less than 3 percent of a 3.9 billion dollar budget on rapid transit and other multimodal projects. But the public is clearly ready for a change in priorities: a March 2008 Elon University poll of North Carolina residents found that over 80 percent of those surveyed selected public transportation services as an effective way to relieve congestion. A majority of residents are ready to take public transit – as soon as those options become more widely available.

The most significant numbers, however, are financial. According to the American Public Transportation Association, building and operating public transit creates more jobs than building or maintaining roads. Public transit keeps more jobs in a community than new highway construction. One think tank, Cambridge Systematics, found that for every dollar taxpayers invest in public transportation, six dollars in economic return are generated.

As is already well known in Charlotte, the LYNX line already anchors nearly two billion dollars in new development—while the system overall is going to continue to create more jobs and local tax revenue. If North Carolina wants to give a running start to its urban areas, where the majority of growth is expected to occur, those communities will need more transportation options to attract new residents and new jobs.

The intermodal bill didn’t get a fair shake this session, though it will surely be a top priority for legislative leaders in January. Its allies ranged from environmental groups, like my home base the Sierra Club, to the state Chamber of Commerce. Although the current bill creates a financing structure based on sales tax revenues, other transit programs nationwide use more diverse funding. That might be an important consideration when the bill is taken up again next year.

In the paint-by-numbers scheme that is the state’s transportation future, the lines have been drawn. Let’s build on Charlotte’s success by coloring in the rest of the transportation map with more choices, more accessibility and more opportunity.

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