Thursday, July 26, 2012

Red line or Sidelined? New transit debate in Charlotte, NC

Residents in Northern Mecklenburg County are preparing to vote on a planned commuter line from Charlotte to its outermost suburbs to the North. As a Charlottean I am very familiar with the traffic that plagues I-77 and have longed for a solution to congestion and development patterns in that part of the county.

The proposed commuter rail would take on a different form from the light rail that currently serves the residents in Southern Mecklenburg County. The red line would be a 25-mile line from Uptown Charlotte to Mooresville that would be similar to the MARC and VRE trains in Washington, D.C. in that the line would be shared by Amtrak and Norfolk Southern.  

The planned line would also be constructed using value capture, which is a rarely used financing technique for transportation projects in North Carolina.

The plan calls for two types of value capture. The first is a special assessment district, formed by a majority of business owners along the Red Line who agree to pay an extra property tax to fund construction. The second form of value capture would be tax-increment financing. I’ve mentioned the effectiveness of TIF in a previous post – essentially TIF uses earnings from expected higher property taxes to pay off bonds used to finance construction of a new rail line. 

County commissioners, along with the city of Charlotte’s Planning Department, have also created design guidelines around the stations that would promote walkability and sustainable development.

While transit enthusiasts are excited about the proposal, local elected officials are not as thrilled. This may present an issue because the Iredell County Commissioners and Mecklenburg County Commissioners must agree on a plan to submit to the state for funding.

The future of the red line is unknown, but its creation is definitely setting precedents for innovative financing and public private partnerships. Ultimately, political and business leaders in Charlotte will have to decide whether to continue investing in transportation for a sustainable future or continue to sink money into expanding roads that will only solve problems in the short term.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Promoting Increased Transit Investment in GA

Last Wednesday, LOCUS President Chris Leinberger and I traveled throughout the Atlanta metropolitan region meeting with political and business leaders to lend support for the upcoming Transportation Investment Act referendum and to advocate for public transportation’s unique role as a driver of the region’s economic development.

In 2010, Georgia lawmakers passed the Transportation Investment Act, which calls for a statewide vote to raise local sales taxes by one cent in order to fund mass transit, road, and other transportation projects in the state. The legislation divides the state into 12 regions and allows elected officials from each region to choose certain transportation projects to be funded by the tax. Currently, regions are compiling their list of transportation projects to be considered for the referendum.

We were joined by Ray Christman, Director of the Livable Communities Coalition, at a Georgia Passenger Rail Coalition sponsored presentation on the latest trends in real estate and how demographic shifts are pushing demand toward transit-oriented, walkable development, which is the next critical component of metro Atlanta’s economic development portfolio.

Later in the evening, Chris testified in front of the Georgia Intermodal Committee of the State Transportation Board regarding the need to make sure the metro region’s transportation project list includes a commuter rail line that would connect Macon to Atlanta. Transportation investments like the Macon-Atlanta commuter line will be key to attracting more young professionals to the area and laying the infrastructure for the second growth corridor.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Walking Tour: H Street NE


If you ask any young professional in D.C. which neighborhoods are the most exciting, the H Street NE corridor would be at the top of most lists.

One would think that officials who oversaw the transition of a neighborhood that barely survived the 1968 riots to one that teams with nightlife would be thrilled. However, after joining the Coalition for Smarter Growth on a walking tour of the area led by Ward 6 Councilman Tommy Wells, I learned that there is some trepidation about H Street’s title as D.C.’s newest hotspot.

In 2003, D.C. officials chose H Street as the site of its first streetcar line. And in 2005 the corridor became part of the Great Streets Initiative to turn create an inviting and vibrant neighborhood.

To create their vision of an attractive area with a mix of housing, retail, and dining options, the city tried innovative techniques to spur economic growth along the corridor including tax increment financing, grant programs and other financial tools.

H Street NE was one of six commercial corridors to receive funding from the D.C. government to attract local business and improve the retail options in the area in 2007. Tax increment financing is a tool that municipalities use to finance new developments or rehabilitation projects in strategic areas, with the idea that the money would be repaid through future gains from increased tax revenues as property values rise due as a result of the initial investment.

Residents debate the effectiveness of TIF on H Street as some on the tour stated that it has been used to attract major tenants like Giant or established more bars and restaurants that leave the neighborhood lively at night but deserted during the day. In other cities like Chicago, TIF districts are a great example of how public-private partnerships can revitalize areas.

D.C. officials have also established a grant program to support small businesses, as well as a tax on vacant properties to decrease vacancy rates and attract other businesses.

To combat the nightlife “problem,” the ANC has created a moratorium on new liquor licenses and is using its status as an overlay-zoning district to ensure that both residents have access to entertainment and needed commercial businesses like barbershops, grocery stores, and bookstores.

I look forward to the day I can ride the streetcar from Union Station to the H Street Country Club for a pint or wander aimlessly on a Saturday morning. And today’s walking tour proved that the future is not too far.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

California dissolves its redevelopment agencies. The right choice?

I was among over 1,400 planners, developers and elected officials who gathered in San Diego for the 11th annual New Partners for Smart Growth Conference this week. 

The conference coincided with the enactment of a California law to dissolve all local and county redevelopment agencies. Redevelopment Agencies have spent years revitalizing California’s downtowns and communities by funding projects that include pedestrian and bike facilities, transportation infrastructure and, most importantly, affordable housing developments. As a result of the law, plans for transforming some of the state’s most blighted areas are effectively on hold.

During the conference I had an opportunity to tour the North Park district in San Diego. North Park is a perfect example of a formally “less desirable” neighborhood that now attracts artists and young professionals who invest both economic and “cool” capital to make the community a popular place to live.

Like most inner ring suburbs, North Park began as farmland until developers cleared the land and constructed homes to support San Diego's burgeoning population in the early 1900's. The neighborhood quickly became the city's premier residential area due to its location on the streetcar line and thriving retail centers in the 1920's. However, soon after the streetcar stopped rolling through the community and the popularity of suburban retail locations in the 1960's and 70's began to increase, North Park began to experience a period of disinvestment from both the public and private sector leading low property values and negative perceptions of the community from San Diego residents.

In the 1990's the neighborhood witnessed a revival of its commercial corridor and a new appreciation for its historic and diverse housing stock. Today, North Park continues to gain attention, and there are talks building a new streetcar line to re-establish the neighborhood as a mixed-use and pedestrian friendly community.

I wonder if North Park and other revitalized neighborhoods in California would have been successful without the aid of the state’s redevelopment agencies. The value and efficacy of these agencies have long been debated, but it's clear that California must continue to make strategic investments in its most needy communities.