Sep 27, 2021 - Development

New light rail would drive development. But what about moving people?

transit economic development

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Ask city officials whether the blue line was a success, and the first thing most point to is not ridership: It’s the wave of development along the route.

Now, as the city prepares for its next light rail line, development is front and center again.

But should it be?

What’s happening: The silver line, the next phase of rail transit in Charlotte, is slated to stretch 29 miles from Matthews to Belmont. Its construction would almost certainly transform swaths of the city, as developers flock to the neighborhoods along its course.

In several key decisions about the route’s alignment, city leaders cite investment as a driving factor. It’s one of the reasons CATS, the transit agency, has said the light rail will bypass the heart of Uptown, and stop a mile from the airport terminal.

What they’re saying: Some transit advocates, though, say those choices emphasize real estate development over efficient transportation.

  • Shannon Binns, founder and executive director of pro-transit group Sustain Charlotte, tells me he understands the city has competing interests. But, he notes, “it doesn’t appear that transit or ridership potential is the top goal.”

Why it matters: As city leaders ask voters to foot the bill for a $13.5 billion transit plan, the stress on development raises questions about whose interests are taking center stage.

  • “Speaking to transit as a vehicle for companies and firms as opposed to something that helps residents, helps people get around affordably, connects people to the things they need in daily life — it’s a way of just talking to an elite audience,” says Ben Fried, communications director with Transit Center, a national transit advocacy group.

Yes, but: Building trains is expensive. Spurring economic development and increasing property values helps cities see a return on their investment.

  •  A consultant told City Council members Monday that a station at 11th Street could generate an additional $20 million to $35 million in additional annual property tax revenue with the redevelopment expected. That’s $5 million to $15 million more than the expected revenue that could come from a station at Trade Street.

The other side: A spokeswoman for CATS stopped responding to Axios’ request for an interview with CEO John Lewis despite repeated attempts.

  • But during a press Q&A for the opening of the LYNX Gold Line streetcar, Lewis said economic development and mobility options go “hand-in-hand.”
  • “Part of that vision is not just about mobility, about moving people,” he told me. “It’s about creating the city where people want to live, work and play, and economic development is a huge part of that.”
Silver Line light rail rendering courtesy of CATS

Flashback: Dating back to the 1990s, transit in Charlotte has always been about more than just moving people from place to place.

When local leaders were drumming up support for the 1998 sales tax that funded the construction of the LYNX Blue Line, economic development was the “sales pitch,” says Mary Newsom, who covered growth for the Charlotte Observer for years.

  • “It was sold originally as an economic development tool because people did not believe that transit for transit’s sake was a winning argument,” she said.

The light rail has reshaped entire neighborhoods north and south of Uptown since then.

  • South End shifted from a collection of warehouses into a hub of entertainment, apartments and offices in the nearly 15 years since the first segment of rail opened.

Now, it’s almost become accepted wisdom in Charlotte that development is one of the primary drivers of transit decisions. And there are two key decisions around the silver line that illustrate that the most.

1. Skirting Uptown

The train’s path would run north along Interstate 277, and that has sparked backlash from transit groups. Leaders considered the more expensive option of building a tunnel under Trade Street to take passengers through Uptown, but ultimately decided against it.

In defending the decision, Lewis told WFAE’s Steve Harrison that incentivizing economic development in a part of town where it has lagged is an important goal of the city’s.

Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt, who has pushed for more clear communication with the public, tells me she’s not as concerned about whether the light rail runs directly through Uptown. The jobs center may shift by the time the train is up and running several decades from now, she says.

“The question has to be, what are those areas going to look like 20 years from now?” she said.

2. Bypassing the terminal

The train is slated to stop along Wilkinson Boulevard, about a mile from the airport terminal. That’s prompted ire from city council and transit advocates alike.

There is a whole host of reasons for the decision by both CATS and the airport, from security concerns to the train inhibiting the airport’s future growth, Harrison reported in the Transit Time newsletter in July.

  • Among them was the desire to redevelop the area around Wilkinson.

Binns says there needs to be more transparency in how decisions on the route are being made.

  • “We don’t really know the reason this alignment with respect to the airport was chosen, because it depends who you ask,” he said. “That really calls into question who is making the decisions and what are the reasons for their decision.”

Between the lines: The arguments around economic development and transit are wrapped up in race and class.

  • The fundamental motivation to build transit is to help people get where they need to go. And those who rely on transit the most are more likely to be low-income and people of color.

When business and government leaders view rail primarily as a vehicle for economic development, Fried believes, it perpetuates harmful stereotypes about which type of transit is acceptable to a white-collar workforce.

  • “It’s part of the language that people use to demarcate which transit is for white, affluent riders, and which transit is for riders who tend to have lower incomes, and riders who tend to be people of color,” Fried says.
  • Fewer light rail riders are low-income and minority compared to those who ride the bus, Ely Portillo of UNC Charlotte’s Urban Institute reported recently.

But as development springs up along the rail, that prices out the very communities that may rely on transit most. Investors are already snatching up properties along the silver line’s route.

  • “How long will it be if we’re not careful before South End reaches the River District (the planned community on the west side of the airport), and the people in between are severely impacted?” asks Rickey Hall, board chairman of the West Boulevard Neighborhood Coalition.

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