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.”
Q. Describe what has happened since the line went into place.
A. Well, first of all, our ridership is now at 2020 levels on the light rail line. And our bus ridership has increased well over 60 to 100 percent. And we have much more diversity of ridership at all economic levels and ethnic groups riding the bus and light rail now. It’s a very accepted means of transportation, where it wasn’t a short 10 years ago.
A. We knew if we were going to give a choice to the consumer that we would have to appeal to the suburbs. So much of the traffic was not in the inner city. The traffic was actually on the areas that were developed in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. So if we were going to get enough ridership, we’d have to appeal to more people in the community. The existing bus system, 14 years ago, was primarily people who had to take transit because of affordability. It was primarily low-income and African American ridership.
Q. How did you do that? How did you appeal to all income ranges?
A. We had to convince them that it would be safe, that it was going to be reliable, that it was going to be clean, cost-effective, and that it would actually help them and their tax base in the suburbs. In fact, in some regards, Charlotte was unique because some of my suburban towns actually were more supportive of transit than some of the inner-city groups. We had very strong suburban support in comparison to other cities at that point in time. Especially in comparison to Atlanta. They got it, real quick. They realized their towns would die if they did not have sufficient commuters able to get to and from work in Charlotte. And they also saw the potential to have some commercial development, and possible industrial development that they desperately needed in the suburbs along the transit lines. So they needed it for survival also.
Q. During construction, steel prices went up by 60 percent, dramatically increasing costs. Describe the fallout from that.
A. We had major cost overruns during the China steel crisis three years ago, four years ago. Literally just killed us in the pricing, when the steel prices jumped up.
During the construction, talk radio was calling the line the McCrory Line. And it wasn’t a compliment. It wasn’t a fun period for me, because I knew it was an insult. It’s working now and they call it the Blue Line. Which is fine with me, because that means it works.
You gotta recognize I’m a Republican. And I had many people on the far right say we only should build roads. And then I also had people on the far left who were mad at me because they wanted it built everywhere out of fairness, even where it might not work. So I was stepping, and those who were on our team were stepping on the toes of both the left and the right. The left wants it everywhere out of fairness, even where it doesn’t make financial sense, and the right didn’t want it all – they wanted only roads. We still have that struggle. And they’re both wrong. Both the left and the right were wrong.
Q. What sort of development has sprung up along the rail line?
A. There was a lot of blight, decay, 1920s abandoned buildings, steel mills. And the land values doubled or tripled in some cases where the line went, and now we have yuppies living in condos along those areas and a very viable place to live, work, and raise a family along that transit line. It’s reinvented the corridor.
We gave developers some bonuses, not necessarily for affordable housing but for density, which allowed them to put some affordable housing in. We also made it easier for developers by not requiring parking requirements. We took out suburban criteria in development. One thing we realized was that in Sun Belt cities, we didn’t have zoning that met transit needs. Our zoning was meant for greenfields, not brownfields. We had to change a lot of that, think out of the box on multi-family zoning above commercial establishments, which we didn’t have zoning for. We basically went back to the zoning of the 1920s. We had made it very difficult to retrofit buildings. It was easier to tear the buildings down before we started this process, which is kind of a sad commentary. Still is, in some regards.
Q. One of the concerns with new development is that an area becomes gentrified and then people can’t afford to live there anymore.
A. We had some of that. I mean, there’s no doubt that one of our poor neighborhoods along that line started to become gentrified. But you also have to recognize, I know a lot of cities that are begging for gentrification. I’d rather have that problem than the opposite problem of total blight and decay, where people are begging to leave versus their property going up. You know, there’s a fine line there. In most cases, that neighborhood now is a very mixed neighborhood called the Wilmore neighborhood where the land values just exploded when in fact 10 years ago, 20 years ago, you couldn’t get anyone to live there. The crime rate was very high and the housing decay was very strong. Almost all the neighborhood values – all the way up and down the line — went up.
Q. What would you like to see happen now with the Lynx?
A. We shouldn’t stop. We should keep going. And the next line, according to the experts, should go to our university. And I’m still not getting to that airport. I hope the next line goes to the airport but now all of a sudden, due to federal money being available, there’s a bias toward a streetcar and things of this nature. And I’m an advocate of streetcars but in this case the streetcar should not be our priority. It should be a major line going toward the university. But some political dynamics are directing a lot of revenue toward a streetcar. I think it’s a mistake.
Q. It’s tough, though, isn’t it – finding funding.
A. Well, that’s part of the problem. Sometimes the federal government will give money out and you think short term and go after short-term, small amounts when that will cost you in the long run. You gotta think long-term and recognize that 10 years or 20 years in the life of a city is a short time. Don’t try to get a short-term win if it’s going to cause you more long-term harm. And that’s the problem with only making decisions only on the money chase.
But during this process, you gotta recognize we had a referendum for a half-cent sales tax. We had a recall on the half-cent sales tax two weeks before it opened.
Q. That was defeated, right?
A. Defeated by almost 70 percent.
Q. How did that come about? Who was driving that?
A. About four people. That’s it. Four people I’d never known. It was amazing.
Q. What do you think was behind it?
A. I blame myself for it, and other people who helped lead the effort. That was one of the lessons learned. Once we got voters to approve the first half-cent sales tax, we moved on to another project. And quit communicating with the public, especially during the cost overruns and delays. That was part of the lesson learned is you can never stop communicating. You have to constantly educate the public and communicate with them and sell it. This referendum by these four or five guys that got 70,000 signatures was a wake-up call. It made me and others go out and start over again and selling it. Thank God we successfully did it, or else we’d be in deep financial problems. I mean, the referendum was two weeks before the opening of the light rail line.
It was an extremely nervous time for me. In fact, it made me run for mayor again. I was not planning to run for re-election but it forced me to hang in there. I had no choice. I had to see it through. If it would have failed, I thought it would have been my job to disband the thing, to dismantle it. But thankfully, the day it opened, two weeks later, people couldn’t get on it. It was too crowded. Now the complaints are that we didn’t build it big enough. And now the problem is everyone wants it.
Part of the problem, too, is that due to the recession our revenue stream is down. The sales tax revenue that our funding is dependent upon has taken a major hit. So we’re going to have to slow up the plans a little bit. But we have to keep the vision out there and the vision alive, even though there’s a delay.
Q. What do you think Charlotte did right that other cities can follow as an example?
A. We put a team together — both the business community and community activists, and it was bipartisan. The second is we articulated the long-term vision extremely well. The third is, we came up with a governance structure which was inclusive for the region. And last, we took politics out as much as possible for where the trains and the buses would go. And there’s a story behind every one of those.