Coming down the line

Light rail is an engine for development in Charlotte, but
will commuter trains make the grade elsewhere?
By Edward Martin

Outside, Charlotte is coming to life. Back home from a nearby YMCA and showered, a muscular man with a shaved head buttons his starched shirt and loops a striped tie under its collar. Four floors down the elevator and out on the street, he walks half a block, then waits in an open-sided shelter. A recorded voice breaks the stillness: “Train approaching.” A blue and silver car glides to a stop. Seven minutes later, he gets off and walks two blocks to a skyscraper, where in the 16th-floor office of his company, Jon Nance makes Exervio Consulting’s first call of the day. It has been 15 minutes since he left home.

About 12,000 people make a variation of his trip each weekday. But the seven-month-old, $462 million Lynx light-rail line moves more than people, its boosters say. It moves real estate on the city’s south side. They credit it with $1.8 billion of development — completed, under way or planned — along its nine miles.

Home for lunch, Nance, 38, stands on the gleaming hardwood floor of his penthouse in South End, once a grim warren of factories and warehouses but now a trendy neighborhood that blends old and new on the fringes of downtown. “That’s Price’s Chicken Coop over there.” He nods toward the 60-year-old fried-chicken takeout place across the street. Below another window, diners mill around outdoor tables at Phat Burrito. When the wind is right, aromas from a nearby bakery fill his 1,300-square-foot condo, purchased three years ago for $335,000. “You can see more of the development down there.” Nance points to cranes towering over a construction site six blocks away. A $100 million, 310-apartment building will stand 11 stories tall there when completed next spring.

More buildings likely will go up when Lynx stretches northward from downtown and hastens a generation of similar commuter-rail systems in the Triangle, Triad and other parts of the state. Some may get intercity commuter trains that run faster and stop less often than Charlotte’s. Those could be bus-like diesel multiple units with individually powered cars. Streetcars might reappear as short-haul transportation and tourist attractions. Regardless of mode, many believe the construction boom along the Lynx line will stimulate business support and lobbying even for rail plans that have stalled. “The potential in Raleigh and the Triangle is similar to Charlotte,” says Lee Norris, managing director of Cherokee Investment Partners in Raleigh. “It’s in the billions.”

Cherokee last year signed a contract with Triangle Transit Authority to guide development around stations on a proposed $2 billion-plus, 56-mile line linking Raleigh, Durham, Cary and Chapel Hill. Cherokee also owns land along the Charlotte line. “The state is ripe for others now, not off in the distant future,” says Charlotte developer Tony Pressley, founder of MECA Properties Inc. and a pioneer in the South End renaissance. “The moon and stars have never been in better alignment, with $4-a-gallon gasoline, $150 a month to park in the business district here and air-quality attainment goals we’re finding difficult to reach.”

Greensboro-based Piedmont Authority for Regional Transportation has discussed a 60-mile commuter rail from Burlington to Clemmons, southwest of Winston-Salem. North Carolina Railroad, which owns a 317-mile corridor from Morehead City to Charlotte, is studying how its freight lines might be shared by commuter trains. It’s focusing on rails from Greensboro to Goldsboro that could ferry workers to and from job centers such as Research Triangle Park and state government offices in Raleigh.

NCRR’s interest amounts to a roundhouse switch from its history of jealously guarding the route for freight trains. President Scott Saylor says a new lease with longtime user Norfolk Southern gives NCRR more control. The railroad has begun identifying common interests that might attract rail commuters. “We looked at our line between Greensboro and Goldsboro and found 22 colleges and universities. That includes Duke University, the third-largest employer in the state. And all say that gobbling up more and more land for parking is not good.” Duke — including its medical center — employs more than 30,000.

Pressley, once ridiculed for his efforts to attract development to South End, says light rail sped the turnaround. “It’s encouraging to see the success after the whole idea was abused so bad for so long. But now it’s a case study for other communities that can learn from the mistakes we made.”

Spring winds ruffle the hair of riders cramming dollar bills into touch-screen ticket kiosks nearly three stories above south Charlotte at Tyvola Road. Between Interstate 485 and downtown, the tracks for Charlotte’s first local passenger train since 1937 — that’s when streetcars gave way to buses — cross high above and below some streets and cut across others.

Once boarded, the train lurches forward, jostling passengers in ties and coats, jeans and work clothes. They peer out through tinted windows. About a mile later, it slows to a halt in front of another station, then downtown, past the backsides of businesses and loading docks. Parallel, in most places a block or two away, is South Boulevard, mostly a tired, treeless stretch of auto-parts stores, car washes, strip malls, strip clubs and fast-food restaurants.

Closer to downtown, signs of change come into view. Old industrial silos — the collapse of one onto the track temporarily shut it down in April — are becoming the centerpiece of The Silos at South End, more than 100 condos and nearly 100,000 square feet of commercial space. The first phase is to be completed in 12 months. Across from Nance’s stop at Bland Street Station, Crescent Multifamily Development Group, part of Duke Energy’s and Morgan Stanley’s Crescent Resources joint venture, is building the most massive project on the corridor. Rising from acres of red clay, the $100 million Circle at South End, to be completed next year, will include 370 apartments in buildings up to five stories tall, plus stores and shops. Along South Boulevard, signs advertise condominiums, some priced at more than $1 million.

“Truth is, even if no one rode the trains, the development triggered along the corridor and the tax revenue from it is well worth the investment already,” says James Mathis, director of Historic South End and a staff member of Charlotte Center City Partners, which promotes downtown. “It’ll make your head spin. A lot of the old manufacturing property was generating minimal taxes. On average, tax from the old to the new is about 45 times higher.” Light-rail backers in Charlotte say development along Lynx, supported by fares and a half-cent local sales tax approved by voters in 1998, demonstrates that urban rail alters not just public transportation — higher-income, white-collar workers shun buses — but it changes neighborhoods. They, like Mathis, contend that residential and commercial development eases the sting of urban rail’s eye-popping costs.

In the three years it took to build the Lynx Blue Line, its length was cut from 13.5 to nine miles, but the price tag exploded from $225 million to $462 million. A study estimates that the $467 million, 77-mile regional system first proposed in the 1980s would now cost nearly $10 billion. Mathis and other rail supporters are undaunted. “South End was always a manufacturing and industrial area,” he says. “I have nine construction projects under way there today. Eight are residential, and one is an office building. It’s becoming a residential neighborhood of young bankers, lawyers and professionals. They want to be close to the action, and light rail sealed it.”

Mathis says developers have seized on that in Charlotte, and he predicts they would in other Tar Heel urban settings. “Developers are pretty smart. They’re in it to make money, but they also revitalize areas.” And they see the writing on the wall, Norris says. “The real issue is demographic change. Over 50% of the households now are single persons. After World War II, 46% were husband, wife and child. Now, it’s a third of that. Couple that with the high price of gasoline, and that is what’s driving demand for urban living.”

Much of urban North Carolina is undergoing similar demographic change, but that doesn’t mean Lynx-like systems and economic development are on the horizon everywhere. Or that they’ll work the way they do in Charlotte. South End’s resurgence, for instance, was driven by its proximity to downtown and was occurring without light rail. Even some developers say the rail line wasn’t the chief draw. “We wouldn’t go out in the hinterlands and build just because of light rail,” says Bo Buchanan, regional director of The Hanover Co., the Houston developer that is building the 11-story apartment tower near Nance’s condo. “But South End had done quite a bit of turning around in the last 10 years, and light rail was the icing on the cake for us.”

And there’s a big difference between intracity lines like Lynx and intercity commuter lines such as the one that might connect Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill and Cary. The Triangle line would have fewer stations, which are the magnets for development.

Charlotte also has more people than any other city in the state. That’s not lost on Greensboro Mayor Yvonne Johnson. Leaders in the Triad are eyeing a line from Greensboro to Winston-Salem with a dozen or fewer stops and an estimated cost of more than $300 million. “One of the things we keep getting every time we bring it up is that we don’t have enough people to really support it.”

Density is an issue just about everywhere in a state full of sprawling cities and grassy suburbs. “Rail systems not only move people efficiently, but politically if we’re going to build the dense urban developments they need to work, they also provide logic as to where they go,” Norris says. “Problem is, everybody’s for this kind of development, but nobody wants it in their backyards.” That, and competition for transportation funding, explains why David Hartgen is the man urban-rail supporters would like to throw under the train.

Interstate 485 sweeps around Charlotte, a ribbon of white concrete slicing through red clay, eventually to total more than 61 miles. Its impact is startling here, west of the city, at its interchange with I-85. Heat shimmers off a maze of loops and ramps covering hundreds of acres while construction pushes northward toward Lake Norman and Concord.

Highways like this, says Hartgen — a UNC Charlotte geography professor emeritus who has become the champion of urban-rail skeptics — are where North Carolina transportation money should go, not to urban trains. The state’s cities are not dense enough to make rail practical, he says, and though Lynx is widely touted as a solution to Charlotte’s Atlanta-caliber highway congestion and ozone pollution, it will have almost no effect cutting either. Estimates vary, but Hartgen pegs the changes in each at less than 2%. “It’s a feel-good toy, but it doesn’t affect our travel patterns, it doesn’t affect congestion, and it doesn’t help the environment. Do we really want to spend billions of public dollars so weekend yuppies can go to Panthers games and avoid a $15 parking fee?” Executives of Charlotte Area Transit System concede that early rider figures have been inflated by tens of thousands of football fans and riders who parked free at remote Lynx lots during college basketball tournaments downtown in February and March.

But those aren’t the only criticisms. Opponents claim Charlotte leaders low-balled cost estimates to gain public support in the 1998 referendum. Others say the Lynx line is poorly planned — the train crosses heavily traveled streets three times in three blocks — and public-relations gaffes have soured many. Leaked e-mails show the wording of a UNC Charlotte study lauding the system was dictated by the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce. The system also has taken flak for $80,000 spent on six mud-colored, sculptured disks, placed along the tracks and supposedly inspired by Charlotte’s red-clay farm heritage. The Raleigh artist has sold nearly identical sculptures to the Indianapolis airport and the University of Oregon with different explanations of their meaning.

The factor that might prove most fractious, though, is the one that urban-rail advocates say is its biggest strength — economic development. Critics say Lynx is really just a $462 million subsidy for banks and other downtown businesses. With a daytime working population of more than 70,000, downtown parking and land costs have soared, and businesses must choose whether to build parking decks or skyscrapers with lease rates of more than $30 per square foot a year. The scenario could be a lesson — or warning — for other Tar Heel cities chasing trains: Get business on board. “One reason light rail has been so successful in Charlotte is that you have political and business leadership that, when they see an issue, they coalesce around it and get it done,” Norris says.

Other regions lack such unified business fronts and such powerful figures as former Bank of America Chairman Hugh McColl and his successor, Ken Lewis, to push for urban rail. “We have business leadership, but it doesn’t have the power to move things like in Charlotte,” says David King, general manager of Triangle Transit Authority. But it’s trying. A committee appointed by lawmakers and headed by retired Progress Energy Chairman Bill Cavanaugh recommended in April that the legislature allow the Triangle and Triad to vote on a half-cent sales tax like Charlotte’s to pay for rail systems.

Other factors also could determine who gets urban rail and who doesn’t. In Charlotte, a 2030 transit plan calls for at least two more lines like the one now running, one through northern Mecklenburg County into southern Iredell County and a second from downtown northeast to UNC Charlotte. But even in current dollars, they would cost $8 billion or more, and hundreds of millions would have to come from the state, with the approval of not only urban legislators but also those from rural counties competing for highway funds.

Even the current local funding for Charlotte’s system isn’t immune from attack. Last year, opponents obtained 48,000 signatures on a petition to repeal the half-cent sales tax that supports light-rail development, forcing a vote in November. The repeal effort failed, but opposition could run deeper in other North Carolina communities with fewer transplants than Charlotte. One reason, some scholars say, is that moving Tar Heels by rail butts into political and cultural bedrock in North Carolina, which has called itself “The Good Roads State” since the 1920s.

The clash of priorities — billions in condominiums, apartments and commercial growth for thriving urban regions versus highways, schools and other needs in poorer, rural counties — could be a political train wreck waiting to happen. “In addition to moving people, highways move goods,” says Christie Barbee, executive director of Carolina Asphalt Pavement Association, a 75-member trade group for the state’s highway builders. “You can’t back a light-rail train up to a Harris Teeter.” She cites an independent study done for the N.C. Department of Transportation that estimates overall transportation spending in the next 25 years at $122 billion. But highway taxes, gasoline taxes and other sources will raise only $57 billion.

Nevertheless, the association, engineering trade groups and some other highway lobbyists have softened their views on urban rail systems. They’ve banded with the North Carolina Economic Developers Association and other organizations to form NC Go! to push for more money for roads and urban rail. The group opposed the repeal of the Lynx transit tax in Charlotte. “We said we don’t want to fight over an ever-decreasing pie,” Barbee says. “What we want is a thicker pie.”

Hartgen doubts that’s going to happen. “It’s basically a mode whose time has passed. You have to be a real Pollyanna to bet your money on these schemes.” King is willing to take that risk but admits that the process will be lengthy. He says the earliest the Triangle could vote on a sales tax to raise money for its system would be fall 2009. And construction wouldn’t begin for years after that. “But if you’re looking at a 30-year time horizon, if you build it, they will come. I’d bet the ranch on that.”

The bet — and subsequent economic-development gambles by builders, cities and others — might pay off in a future that looks surprisingly like the past. At Tyvola Station, two white-haired women board Lynx. They clutch handrails as the train lurches forward, then lower themselves into seats where one takes the other’s photograph. They reminisce about girlhood trips when Charlotte’s streetcars were daily transportation.