Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Lessons from Charlotte and the Challenge Defining Livability

Excellent article at the NYT, "A Southern Success Story for Public Transportation Offers Lessons in Livability." With a laser scope and a round in the chamber, this fully automatic piece hits so many targets so forcefully, that it is well worth the read. It even includes a delicious quote from the head of a brilliantly named American Highway Users Alliance as well as some right-wing cannibalistic fear mongering by a washed up George Will.

A sampling of the remainder of the article, about a City that suffers similar maladies as does our own hometown here in the Big D: a choking inner ring highway around its downtown (what they call uptown - backwards, I know), areas of the city completely disconnected and isolated by freeways and railroad lines, overly wide streets with a preponderance of one-ways, over-scaled bank towers and their enormous supportive infrastructure and delivery systems, and surface parking in the downtown as far as the eye can see (once again proving that with all of those highways and roads, surface parking is the highest and best use):

Charlotte's vision:
In year four of a 25-year plan, the city is laying the tracks for an intermodal passenger system with a full menu of mass-transit options, complete with light-rail trains dropping off passengers in Uptown and at a central high-speed rail station, and streetcars running from center city to the international airport.

The ineffectual nature of buses:
The ridership numbers for the city's first light rail line help to make the case: More than 70 percent of the system's riders had previously never been regular passengers on Charlotte's bus service, according to the city.

The invisible hand is always attached to an invisible arm of gub'mint:
Leinberger likened transportation planning to "a rudder of a ship" that ultimately controls where and how private investment flows.

The challenge facing cities with no additional Federal funding support:
"With no additional revenue coming from the federal government, this is going to be up to local jurisdictions to raise the money," said Leinberger. "There's just not sufficient money coming out of the federal government."

Projected return on investment:
To that end, Charlotte's planners say the city is expecting $1.8 billion worth of investments to be made along the first line by 2011.

The question then becomes, how do you foot that big ol' bill when both the calculable and incalculable returns on investment are well documented locally and nationally? Does the city raise taxes to pay for it? Does it issue bond packages? Is there a way private investment can capitalize on the opportunity through development potential, considering the biggest winners will be land owners near proposed transit hubs, the public sector through increased tax base, and a citizenry no longer shackled to the cost and tyranny of automobile usership (usurp-ship?).

Considering streetcar lines were privately built to unlock the value of land outside the immediate downtown (what we now call "inner ring neighborhoods"), I am guessing that it will require some or all of the above in a cooperative public-private partnership, only made more difficult this time around with fractured, parcelized land ownership of the targeted and oft-faltering neighborhoods.

The planning and design part is easy. On the financial side, it is most certainly going to take some brain damage, but it will be well worth the effort.