So as to not overburden those of you who don't have the time to read my long background explanation, I'll give you the great news here. In Sunday's Charlotte Oberver, there's an article (link...) about Saturday's opening of their new LYNX light rail line. The public interest was astounding, with sixty thousand people standing in line (some for as long as two hours) to ride the system. That's equal to ten percent of the city's population! The public support and interest is overwhleming. Take note, Knoxville area leaders and decision makers. This isn't Portland or somewhere in California. It's Charlotte, just over the mountains from good old Knoxville. For those who say "It may happen in other places, but it won't happen in Knoxville", or "Knoxville won't have light rail for a long time" (to quote a certain top Knoxvile elected offical this week), I hope they open their eyes and see the possibilities. While Charlotte's bigger than Knoxville, it's very similar in many ways. Bottom line, it's another southeastern city a whole lot like us.
For those who would like more background, I'll share my recent experience with this Charlotte phenomenon. Monday before last, I was in the Queen City to attend the ribbon-cutting of the new light rail line. I went at the invitation of a friend who is on city council there, and had originally hoped to pull together (on short notice) a small contingent from Knoxville to go with me. I was only able to find one individual who could go, and unfortunately none of my fellow Knoxville City Council members were able to attend.
We left at 5:00 a.m., and arrived in time for the VIP breakfast, followed by the appropriate speeches from various political leaders and officials (inlcuding both US senators). Then came the ribbon cutting and the VIP rides on the system. We chose the ride to the end and back (ten miles one way), but others with less time took the fifteen minute round-trip excursion.
The system is absolutely beautiful, and is as good as any I've seen in any city in this country and abroad. It wasn't cheap, with a total price tag (including overruns) of around $300 million. That number carries with it the potential for sticker shock for those not used to the cost of big urban transportation projects (less than two miles of freeway in Knoxville's Smart Fix 40 project came in at a whopping $200 million). The system cost has to be looked at in the context of its total impact. Not only does it have the potential for taking huge numbers off the highly congested highways, but it has a wonderful impact on development patterns.
In Charlotte's case, as in the case of most cities that have built such systems, developers are eager to build higher desnity mixed-use projects adjacent to light rail stations. Prior to the opening of the LYNX line, they had already counted upwards of $1.4 billion in new real estate development in station areas along the line. Transit Orriented Development (TOD) is being recognized as a huge boon to cities, and a clear alternative to the typical (and costly) sprawl we've begun to be so concerned over.
What Charlotte has done is a model that deserves close attention. In 1997, they developed a regional vsion for transportation and land use that outlined an approach centered on rail transit spokes raidiating from the downtown core. The plan went to the voters in 1998 for funding in the form of a half cent sales tax dedicated strickly to transit. It passed by a narrow margin, and has funded a much improved and expanded bus system along with the beginnings of a great rail transit backbone.
The transit sales tax, and the great system it supported, faced a major threat this year. The LYNX light rail line that was under construction experienced major cost overruns, due mostly to forces beyond their control. In addition to a federal funding system that takes a decade now to get from initial plans and cost estimates to acutal construction (a situation that makes it impossible to budget), the skyrocketing costs of construction materials (resulting from Katrina recovery and new demand from China) hit them at the worst time. There was a backlash from anti-tax forces allied with anti-rail transit groups (who operate on a nationwide level). They got over 37,000 petition signatures and put a measure on the ballot to rescind the transit sales tax. Not only did their effort fail on November 6th, but it was denied by seventy percent of the voters. The transit advocates came out of that fight with the wind to their backs.
My friends in Charlotte have given an open invitation to bring as many people from Knoxville as will come, so they can share what they've learned with us. Stay tuned.
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