Planning politics: How Charlotte’s mayor championed light rail
Photo courtesy Willamor Media via FlickrPat McCrory, elected mayor of Charlotte in 1995 at the age of 39, had no idea transit would be the defining issue of his tenure as leader of the city. “I did not run on the issue of transit whatsoever,” he says. But when he took office, he came across a land use plan that showed Charlotte was in dire need of different ways for people to get around the city. He took the parts of the plan that seemed viable and turned the project into a national role model for transit-oriented development.
Q. What are some examples of things you saw in the plan that you thought could definitely work in Charlotte, and things you thought would never work?
A.There were five transit corridors on the 25-year transportation plan. We needed to pick one of the corridors. Now I had a bias for one of the corridors going toward the airport. But I also wanted to pick the one that would work, not the one that was politically of interest to me or other board politicians. I wanted the experts to pick the one that would work the best and have the best chance to get federal and state and local funding. So I consulted with my transportation experts, and they picked one line where there was an existing railroad track that would have the sufficient density to support a light rail line.
I had to be a role model, along with others, to say we’re going to pick the rail line that works the best and not the one that the politicians necessarily want. Which was a major lesson learned, because other cities had not done that.
I also went and started visiting other cities to see what worked and what didn’t work. One of the lessons learned was that some cities implemented transit in the wrong places. They felt political pressure or community pressure.
Q. Where did you visit?
A. I mainly targeted Sun Belt cities that had similar growth patterns as Charlotte. I went to Atlanta, Miami, Denver, Dallas, Portland. Later on during the process Salt Lake City, San Diego. I mainly avoided the northeastern cities because their density — there was no comparison. And their growth patterns were so much different. So I tried to visit cities with similar growth patterns that Charlotte would encounter during the next 20, 25 years.
Q. How did you put together your group of experts?
A. The first thing I did was put together 10 community leaders. I called them the Committee of 10. This was what I did in the first year that we started this process. They were community leaders in business and neighborhoods. I wanted a good cross-section of people but I wanted the committee to be rather small and functional so it could have some sway.
Q. What did Charlotte have in place at the time?
A. Nothing. We had a dilapidated bus system — a very dilapidated, poorly funded bus system that was incurring increasing future debt and low ridership. And again, part of the goal was not just to put light rail in but to get a total transportation plan and a major portion of that was buses. The media concentrated only on the light rail but frankly, about 60 to 70 percent of the funding in the first five years went to improving our bus system, which wasn’t sexy but it was desperately needed.
Q. Why was it needed? Were there problems with traffic congestion?
A. Well, I started reading the report and looking at the next 25 years and realized we had certain corridors in our city that current road infrastructure could not support the future growth, even with widening of those roads. First of all, we were running out of space to widen the roads. There was only so much room for the impervious space. And second, the road engineers told me that after we add a lane or two, that’s it for the next 25 to 50 years and that we’d need to look for other choices for transportation. And it made sense to me.
Q. Do you think that would have been politically viable if it had been physically possible? Would people have rather added more roads, wider roads?
A. Oh, absolutely. There was not a strong clamoring for transit whatsoever. It was very low on the agenda.
Q. How did you get over that?
A. We sold it. We sold the merits. We sold the future, and that this would be something that would prepare our city for the future. This wasn’t for today but it was for tomorrow. And I got the business community. The business community was an important partner in this process, including the development community. They were right at the table with me and others the whole time.
Q. Describe how transit helps them.
A. We had many corporations that had moved from the north down to the south that understood that there was going to be a need for transit. Many of them had ridden transit in their past homes. Many, many people were from the Northeast, the West, and the Midwest who had experience with transit and knew that sooner or later the road capacity would be filled. They clearly understood that because they were not all from Charlotte. They were transplants. That helped. These were the top business leaders who got it, more than the public, actually, at the time. And they also recognized that if they can’t get people to and from work in a reasonable amount of time, they move, because it impacts their productivity.
From the development standpoint, I think the developers recognized they could make money, which is something I’m all in favor of. If that increases the value of property, that means I get more taxes to pay for police and fire and other roads. The development community was divided, but we got a good coalition of developers to go, “You know what? Long term, this could make sense.”