America Fast Forward: Charlotte Lynx

Mecklenburg County's 2030 transit system plan.

This is the third story in our series examining how L.A. County’s 30/10 financing model — and its national counterpart America Fast Forward — could help other cities around the country.

In 1998, change was afoot in North Carolina. In Mecklenburg County — home to Charlotte, the state’s largest city — voters approved a comprehensive expansion of transit service to be paid for with a half-cent sales tax increase.

Right away, the sales tax enabled the local transit agency to bolster its bus system and begin planning a network of commuter and light rail lines. By 2007, the agency had some accomplishments under its belt but also faced challenges. Although a group of residents had successfully placed a measure on a local ballot to repeal the dedicated transit sales tax, the effort was resoundingly defeated by a 70-30 margin by the residents of Mecklenburg County.

Only weeks later, the Blue Line, the first leg in the light rail system, opened to the public and quickly blew by Charlotte Area Transit Systems’ ridership projections — today, it averages around 20,000 weekday riders [pdf]. And from 2000 to 2010, Charlotte-area residents heartily embraced their growing transit system, as evidenced by a doubling of ridership from roughly 40,000 to 100,000 daily trips. From 2006 to 2008 Charlotte’s transit ridership grew by 47 percent, by far the largest rate of increase in the United States.

A new transit-oriented development along CATS' initial Blue Line.

A new transit-oriented development along CATS' initial Blue Line.

Charlotte has even reaped considerable dividends in the form of increased economic development. A recent study conducted by the Center for Transit-Oriented Development found that the Lynx Blue Line helped spur the construction of almost 10 million square feet of new commercial and residential development along the line. Compared to new transit corridors in Denver and Minneapolis, CTOD showed the Blue Line’s development performance to be the strongest of the three by a wide margin.

Indeed, by several measurements, the case is strong for further investments in Charlotte’s rapid transit system. But like many metro areas around the country, sales tax revenues have dropped considerably due to the recession. In 2010 Olaf Kinard, CATS Director of Marketing and Communications, described the situation to Yonah Freemark of Transport Politic (excerpt):

The issue that all transit systems and businesses are faced with is that the recession caused a significant drop in the revenues and thus a new base from which to grow from. CATS is currently pulling in sales tax revenue at a level equivalent to the 2004/2005 annual level. Projecting that new base out 10 years at a conservative rate of increase of approximately 3% creates a $350 million difference from the 2006 projects during the same time.”

A multi-modal CATS transit stop.

A multi-modal CATS transit stop.

In our conversations with CATS officials, they shared information about their transit program generally, but declined to discuss America Fast Forward in detail or endorse it.

At this time, it remains unclear whether AFF would benefit Charlotte. On the other hand, it’s safe to say this: AFF seems very unlikely to harm any existing transit agency. If Congress adopts AFF as law, federal loans and financing could be used to build transit now — rather than many years in the future.

And waiting to build transit until the distant future, after all, only seems to offer this: more years with fewer alternatives to driving, more traffic and higher construction prices.

Previously in this series: Denver’s efforts to rapidly add light rail, commuter rail and busways, and Salt Lake City’s effort to expand transit connections.