Rail rival turns teacher
October 25, 1009
Charlotte jumped ahead of Tampa in competition for federal funds to build rail transit, but falling behind has its advantages.
Leaders of the North Carolina city are generously sharing what they learned in laying an urban train line through a sprawling metropolis in love with the automobile. The most important message is: Built right, trains work.
The clear implication is that it also can be done in Hillsborough County.
A 23-member delegation from Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties visited there Oct. 16 and was greeted by Mayor Patrick McCrory, a Republican and rail champion.
Much was learned in the day full of lectures, slide shows and a field trip. Here are two of the biggest lessons.
First, put the rail line where research says the most people will use it, not where the most influential politicians think it should go.
"The first line I wanted was to the airport," McCrory says. "It came in fifth place."
Charlotte's first rail line opened two years ago - 9.6 miles of track linking the city center to a dingy industrial and strip-mall area to the south. The choice held little obvious promise of renaissance, but it did parallel a busy interstate highway choked with commuter traffic.
Inflation caused the rail project to bust the original budget estimates, but ridership is already 20 years ahead of projections. Parking lots at the stations are full, and rail expansions are planned.
McCrory advises listening to everyone but to not be led astray by either vocal end of the political spectrum. The far right argues that no line is feasible anywhere, and the far left wants lines everywhere. Both are wrong.
The second lesson is that transit plans must mesh with land development plans.
Most of the land near stations is not just allowed higher density; developers must build a certain number of units per acre, or their project is rejected.
But Charlotte was smart to draw lines around established neighborhoods so that the train does not become the enemy of homeowners. Neighborhood preservation areas, some quite close to stations, protect single-family residential. Developers know those areas are off limits to condos, apartments, retail or offices.
What developers said they wanted most were areas pre-zoned for intense development, and Charlotte gave them that.
But it wasn't enough. Stronger incentives were needed to lure the upscale growth that is making the investment pay off.
"People say, build it and they will come," said Charlotte Planning Director Debra Campbell. "No, they won't. Other areas are easier to do development."
Charlotte discovered that it had to put in new street connections, lighting, landscaping, sidewalks, security, trails and parking to entice developers. The city also made it easier to rehabilitate historic buildings near stations.
As a result, the station zones are tall, bright and handsome. They are appealing places to live or work.
About $1.5 billion in investment has happened within a half mile of the stations, with much more planned but delayed by the recession.
When the economy improves, the stations are where development is going to rebound first, a Charlotte official predicts.
Charlotte has a winning game plan for development that voters strongly endorsed. A visitor from Tampa leaves wondering why voters here have never been asked to endorse a similar vision.
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