October 1, 2010

In Charlotte, Tampa sees its vision for light rail

By Bill Varian, Times Staff Writer

A sales tax builds up transit lines in Charlotte, but not without bumps.


Pat McCrory was having panic attacks as the grand opening approached. As mayor of North Carolina's largest city, McCrory had helped persuade voters to raise the sales tax a half cent for light rail and expanded bus service. Then he watched for nine years as the project struggled with cost overruns, construction delays and a last-ditch effort to repeal the tax. Finally, it was time to see if anyone would actually ride Charlotte's $500 million train.

"I was scared out of my mind," McCrory says today, describing the Saturday in November 2007 when the city rolled out its trains for a free demonstration. "I was scared to death no one would even show up."

They showed up all right, some 60,000 strong, to see the train called LYNX. And they've been showing up ever since - exceeding projections, spawning new development along the rail line, and fueling a sense among many of its residents that Charlotte is on the move.

This could have been Tampa. For much of the 1990s, political leaders in Hillsborough County flirted with the idea of building a local rail system. But shifting political winds left those plans undeveloped as Charlotte pushed ahead.

"Oh, well," said Natalie English, a senior vice president with the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce, in mock disappointment that Tampa missed out.

Next month, Hillsborough County residents will finally get a chance to decide the fate of mass transit. They are being asked to vote on a 1-cent sales tax increase that would pay for rail, road work and expanded bus service.

Proponents say a successful vote is the antidote to a future of traffic gridlock and will move Hillsborough County into the modern era. They hope it marks the beginning of a regional commuter rail system that finally unites Tampa - physically and symbolically - with its neighbors to the north and west.

Opponents call it a pricey endeavor that will do none of the above.

As advocates gear up, they are looking to Charlotte, where a similar debate played out more than a decade ago.

Kimberly Shattuck, 26, is one of the regulars. On a recent Wednesday, the project manager for Bank of America pulled into one of the seven free parking lots on Charlotte's rail line, a three-story deck at its southern terminus. It was 8:30 a.m.

She crossed a pedestrian bridge from the garage, stepped into an air-conditioned train car and pulled out her laptop. And she tap, tap, tapped through the 25-minute trip past the strip malls north of Pineville to the skyscrapers downtown.

Shattuck lives five minutes from the station, and on some days she still drives to work. If she leaves early enough, it's a 20-minute trip. But a bad day can turn the commute into a 90-minute ordeal.

"This has been a blessing to have the train, both in terms of not having to drive, and my sanity," she said.

Getting to this point wasn't easy. Charlotte and surrounding Mecklenburg County debated its transportation options for years before 58 percent of voters approved a sales tax increase in a 1998 referendum.

The plans called for five transit corridors that converge downtown and reach into the suburbs with a mixture of rail and dedicated bus routes. The first - and so far, only - rail line runs from the city center to near the Interstate 485 beltway 10 miles south.

Planners projected initial ridership of about 9,100 passengers a day. When gas prices spiked, that number at times topped 18,100, a number planners didn't expect to hit until 2025. Today, ridership averages just under 15,000.

On the same evening as Shattuck's commute, retirees Chip and Trudie Heemsoth pulled into a park-and-ride lot that is 10 miles from their Fort Mill, S.C., home.

They were heading downtown for a showing of Mary Poppins at a performing arts center, taking off shortly after rush hour. Their combined $7 round-trip fare was half what they would have paid for parking, and let them avoid the hassle of finding a spot.

"I have not driven downtown since the rail line started," said Chip Heemsoth, 64, a former air traffic controller.

"We wish it could go farther south to where we live," said Trudie Heemsoth, 62.

Those sentiments were expressed repeatedly that day, and the next, and the next, as riders filed into train cars that seldom were less than half full and often standing-room only. The system's biggest problem, in fact, appears to be its success. Passengers' most frequent gripe in a 2009 survey: Trains are often too crowded.

Otherwise, they describe a system that is safe, clean, on time and, compared with driving, inexpensive.

Monthly parking rates range from $90 on the outskirts of Charlotte to $200 in the heart of downtown. A transit pass, good for buses as well as trains, is $70, and many employers pick up some part of that.

"This is a whole lot cheaper," said Ericka Robinson, 30, a Bank of America money laundering investigator. "I'm saving on gas, too."

Melissa Love, 28, a home health aide, often pedals her bike to a bus stop and then grabs a ride to the train. On this day, she pushed the bike on board - a common sight - then stepped off a few stations later to hop another bus and eventually pedal to her next client's home.

"I've been late once in the year I've been riding it," Love said of the train. "And that was maybe three to five minutes."

Hillsborough officials and business leaders have toured a number of commuter rail systems, including newer ones in Phoenix and Salt Lake City. But Charlotte has gotten particular attention.

That's because the two cities are similar. Both are humid, midsize Southern cities that anchor sprawling metro areas. Both have pro football teams and their chambers of commerce compete to lure some of the same businesses.

In recent years, Tampa promoters of business development say their hometown is in danger of losing its head-to-head competition against Charlotte.

Charlotte has twice Tampa's population, with a downtown that employs more workers. Some 70 percent of its jobs are tied to the financial services industry, with Bank of America's headquarters at the top of the food chain. And its downtown, which civic boosters call Uptown, is home to three times as many people.

Not long ago, downtown Charlotte felt like a place that kept bankers' hours. It's now home to museums, sports and concert venues, as well as dozens of bars and restaurants, that keep Uptown up into the wee hours.

Tampa leaders want some of that.

Mayor Pam Iorio points out what has arrived in downtown Tampa in the past few years without rail: new condos, the Tampa Bay History Center, the Glazer Children's Museum, the Tampa Museum of Art, an overhaul of Curtis Hixon Park.

Now imagine all that connected to the University of South Florida and one of Florida's busiest business districts along West Shore Boulevard, with high-speed rail arriving from Orlando.

"When you look at that, you can't help but conclude that light rail is going to be a success because we have a lot of dynamics at play that they don't have," Iorio said, speaking of Charlotte, which she visited three weeks ago. "And they have had a very successful inauguration of light rail."

Successful, yes, but not enough to silence its critics. Many in Charlotte remain angry about cost estimates that proved wildly optimistic. And many taxpayers, they say, have yet to see tangible benefits.

All of which provides a cautionary tale for Hillsborough officials.

What voters approved in Charlotte was more a vision than a detailed blueprint, and the bottom line proved equally fuzzy. The LYNX blue line, much of it along an old Norfolk Southern rail bed, was projected to cost $227 million. It came in at $463 million.

The planners hadn't factored in inflation, and the cushion they built for land purchases was inadequate. The rail line faced runaway steel and concrete prices, skyrocketing property values and tweaks to the plan that caused construction delays.

As the first line headed toward completion, a group called Sensible Charlotte Area Transportation (SCAT) tried to stop the train. It collected petition signatures and got a measure on the ballot three weeks before the grand opening asking voters to repeal the tax. They failed, getting only 30 percent support.

SCAT co-chairman Jim Puckett, a former Mecklenburg commissioner, was among those who thought LYNX would fail to lure riders. He concedes it is more popular than he expected.

But he sees no evidence it has eased road congestion. Rider fares cover about 25 percent of operating costs, with most of the rest paid for with sales tax money. And he says residents of his former north Mecklenburg district are seeing little benefit from the taxes they are paying.

"In terms of moving people to downtown Charlotte, I think it does a better job than I thought it would,'' Puckett said. "But I don't think the cost is worth it."

Consultants are paying for engineering work on an 11-mile extension through the University of North Carolina at Charlotte campus. But a project that only four years ago was expected to cost $740 million when it opened in 2013 is now projected to cost $1.1 billion and may not carry passengers until 2019 at the earliest.

Another northern spur, a 25-mile, diesel-powered commuter rail line that would run mainly during rush hour, doesn't qualify for the federal program that helped pay for light rail. Meanwhile, sales tax money that was projected to steadily climb dropped instead, leaving that project's start date a question mark.

Jim Bensman is a town commissioner in Cornelius, a bedroom community north of Charlotte that is hoping to get the diesel line. Now he wonders if he'll ever see a train stop there. He questions whether voters were persuaded to approve a sales tax for something that may never benefit them.

"I think you'll generally hear that people are pleased with the success of the line,'' he said. "I'm not sure all the results are in."

Tampa officials who have visited Charlotte to check out its transit system have noted two things in particular: redevelopment along its rail line and its emphasis on bus service.

South of downtown, one of Charlotte's newest in-town neighborhoods is taking root.

A decade ago, the South End was a collection of mostly empty warehouses and storefronts that looked like the train had passed them by. Now, a train passes every 10 to 20 minutes, and there are stops on both sides of South End.

The rail line, once a freight corridor, is flanked by rows of refurbished warehouse spaces, mid-rise condos and apartment buildings, restaurants and law offices.

"It's almost like this area has grown right up with light rail," said Danny Dubisky, 29.

Dubisky moved here just over a year ago, returning after a stint in Pinellas County. He rented a place at the newly built Millennium South End, a 269-unit apartment complex with a patio view of the rail line.

On the Friday before Labor Day, he sat outside the Common Market, a neighborhood deli and grocery with an alley leading to the rail line. Here, shoppers can buy natural juices, top-shelf wine, Belgian beer, or Miller High Life tall boys, and enjoy them on the tree-shaded courtyard out back.

Dubisky was celebrating the high life with friend Paul Davidson, 30, a roofer who had walked over from his nearby condo.

"When the light rail got going, it was just building after building," Davidson said.

South End is the showcase of what city officials say has been more than $940 million in new construction along the rail line. An additional $1 billion in building has been proposed, but much of it stalled with the economy.

That a long-dormant area would suddenly take off was not dumb luck, said Charlotte planning director Debra Campbell.

"Build it and they will come?" she said. "It won't happen."

As Charlotte officials starting preparing in earnest for light rail, land use maps were reinvented. They adopted new rules to make construction easier, consulting developers and residents along the way.

Density limits? No more. Planners began setting density minimums.

Design standards? Very limited. Walls facing streets and rail lines had to be "active," with windows, not blank walls. But there were no mandates on building materials, paint colors or roof pitches.

Hillsborough County planners are attempting to prepare the same path for renewal.

Boosters of the proposed sales tax in Hillsborough County have emphasized that it is not just about rail. They realize the county's transit agency won't open its first rail line until at least 2018. But they can buy buses and put more of them on the road, more frequently and on new routes.

Charlotte did just that: Before it ever broke ground on light rail, there was investment in its bus system, doubling the fleet, expanding express service and reaching into neighborhoods as never before.

"That gave us great flexibility and the ability to expand our system many ways," said John Muth, deputy director of development for the Charlotte Area Transit System.

Today, a sizable portion of its sales tax revenue is dedicated to the bus system, which has seen ridership double since 1998.

Buses chug along downtown streets day and night. They run circular routes in outlying subdivisions and ferry people to the light-rail line.

Each day, buses make more than 3,000 passes through a bustling terminus - the downtown Charlotte Transportation Center. Many of the buses will be full well into the evening.

"It may not get as much attention as rail, but they took a very anemic, underfunded bus system, and they turned it into a modern, 21st century bus system," Iorio said. "And that's what we intend to do."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or varian@sptimes.com.

Comparison of two cities

Charlotte, N.C., is often cited by Tampa's light-rail supporters as a city that has done well with its transit improvements. Here's a look at the two areas:

Tampa Charlotte
343,890 City population (2009) 704,422
112 City land area (2000 sq. mi.) 242
3,070 Residents per sq. mi. 2,911
1.2 Downtown (sq. mi.) 1.9
50,000 Downtown work force 70,000
3,000 Downtown population 11,230
1.2 million County population (2009) 913,639
1,051 County land area (sq. mi.) 526
1,137 Residents per sq. mi. 1,736
2.9 million MSA* population 1.7 million
3,331 MSA land area (sq. mi.) 3,441
938 Residents per sq. mi. 444

* Metropolitan Statistical Area population (2009 estimate). The MSA comprises Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater; and Charlotte, Gastonia, N.C., and Rock Hill, S.C.

Sources: U.S. Census, Charlotte Center City Partners, Tampa Downtown Partnership, Times research

Know your transit

Light rail: Typically runs on steel rails and is powered by electricity from an overhead wire. Can operate as a single car or a series of cars. Train car capacity typically averages 110 passengers. Can reach speeds of 60 mph.

Commuter rail: A diesel- or electric-powered system that uses existing railroad rights of way. It is used for longer-distance trips between a central city and its suburbs, primarily during peak commuter times.

Heavy rail: Completely separated from traffic, pedestrians and other rail traffic, the vehicles are powered by an electrified third rail or overhead wires. It is used for medium to long distances when high speeds and rapid acceleration are needed.

High-speed rail: Intercity passenger rail service, typically with few stops and speeds of up to 110 mph. Florida has won federal money for a line between Tampa and Orlando. County sales tax money is not planned for use on high-speed rail.

Bus rapid transit: Service is generally more frequent with limited stops. Hillsborough Area Regional Transit is analyzing this option along with light rail or more frequent traditional bus service.

Sources: Hillsborough Area Regional Transit; American Public Transportation Association; U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Railroad Administration.


Copyright 2010 St. Petersburg Times

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