This past Monday, I had the pleasure of attending Wine & Canvas night in Carmel with my wife. Their Main Street (downtown) seems to be rapidly urbanizing. For a burb located 15 miles from the regional CBD, they are doing well. This photo is of a statue on the sidewalk on West Main Street. If you are an advocate of things urban, it really is worth your time to go walk through the Main Street area. There was another development coming together that doesn't quite ruin the scale and doesn't look like your typical EIFS clad mess of garbage.
Today I read an article out of Charlotte, NC that they want to extend their LYNX Light Rail Blue Line a couple of blocks. The current end point is at 7th street in downtown Charlotte. They want to extend it to 9th street.
According to google maps, this is a grand total of 850-ish feet. FEET!! Not even a 1/4 mile. According to the article, the expense of extending this line is estimated at $25 million bringing us to nearly $30k per foot of extension.
In the realm of expensive transit projects, this has GOT to take the cake. Upon further examination, there is already a single line of electrified track that exists there that was used by the heritage trolley system. Whether or not the sub-grade is robust enough to support the greater weight of the S70 light rail vehicle is beyond my conclusion right now but lets say for a moment that it isnt and that they have to replace the sub-base. That is still a ridiculous amount of money. They dont need to build a maintenance yard. They don't need to buy new overhead electronics. The supports for the wire are there. Im pretty sure this extension wont require another vehicle to maintain headways. ROW aquisition cannot be that much as there appears to be space there.
Where is this unrealistic price tag coming from? Why do I care? Because I pay taxes, and they have asked for federal funds to help extend this. So I ask, where is the expense? Some explaination can be found here with some real commentary fom CATS (Charlotte Area Transit System) officials. I still think the costs are ridiculous after reading the article.
As an advocate of public transportation improvements, and living in the very auto centric city of Indianapolis, it is easy to look at what other cities have done to impliment a strategy of improving their own transportation system. Readers of this blog know that I often look at what other towns have done. You only have to look at my blog roll to see the envy of Portland. While that is the case, one thing that I have discovered about Portland is that while from the outside it looks like the transportation mecca, they still have their issues. The automobile movement is still quite strong there. The current Columbia River Crossing bridge project has sucked up a LOT of money and nothing has even happened. A new governor running for office is decrying the latest light rail plan that they have which is in the final design stages. There are plenty of efforts to derail "rail" as it were, even where it seems successful.
In my efforts to find a city to compare to Indianapolis economically as well as population and total sprawl, I turned up Charlotte, NC. So how does a city like Charlotte which, much like Indianapolis, has a car culture, un-hinge auto centric thinking, and in many cases bullishness? You can start at the CATS (Charlotte Area Transit System) website. They have a lot of information about their current LYNX light rail line including schedules, fares, etc. The LYNX (or Blue Line) is a 9.8 mile long, double-tracked, fully electrified light rail system offering low headways. It is NOT a commuter line rail which operate at peak commuter times only. The light rail is the jewel of the system though. When you look at their expanded network, they are responsible for over 26,000,000 total boardings every year which are divided among the light rail, 70 buses and a trolley that operates on the weekends on the light rail tracks. That is nearly 3 times what Indianapolis and our wimpy system move.
In addition to that, they have developed a robust land use strategy intandem with their long term transportation plan. Reading through some of the notes reminds one of the modern urban advocate's best advice. Modern zoning codes. Lower parking accomodations. Promotion of pedestrian principals. The thing's that urban thinkers laud and talk about daily on sites like streetsblog. In fact, they have many light rail, commuter rail and modern streetcar improvements planned over the next 30 years. The current recession has put a damper on the progress, but the plan is in place. To help fund the construction of this network, Mecklenburg County voters approved a 1/2 cent sales tax increase in 1998. These funds were used to help construct the first line and through a hypothesized increase in financial activity, would be able to attract more as the years go by.
My initial research uncovered a number of projects that have located next to the light rail line. For instance, 3030 South is located about halfway down the line from downtown (or Uptown as the locals call it) near the New Bern Station and is a "mixed use development". They have even included a section on their website depicting where on the line they are located. The project seems to be moving along with about 75% of their plan complete as of their website.
Also on the line is Southborough, another development linked to a LYNX station, this one near the Atherton Mill Station. This development is not quite on top of a station, but is located within walking distance.
The Circle South is also a new urban development backed up directly to the light rail line. The photos from their website are pretty awesome.
One of the larger ones that I have been able to locate is named the Ashton South End, a 310 unit multi floor building.
The one downside that I have been finding about these new developments is the price. Here are some of the starting rates. Ashton: Starting @ $1199. Circle South End: $915 (and that is for a STUDIO! Click for a price list). While not out of people's price range, I can tell you from my single days, that I wasn't paying that for rent, nor was my wife in her Broad Ripple Village apartment.
The flip side is that even existing, older apartments have used the light rail as a magnet for selling. Take this link for example. Sharon Lakes Condos is located further out from the city center, and lists apartments starting in the $620 range, and go out of their way to mention that they are within walking distance of the light rail. I suppose not a bad compromise if you work downtown, and need cheaper rent. One thing that this DOES illustrate is another metro that has trouble pricing it's real estate cheap enough for younger single people who want to live in the city. I could be off base with this assumption but it seems to be the norm everywhere.
One bright spot off the light rail development beaten path, is the Charlotte Tailgate Farmer's Market which has now been renamed the Atherton Market due to their recent move. Their former location was within easy walking distance of the Bland Station. The new location is near the East/West stop. In fact their new space, is the old location of the Charlotte Trolley Barn conveniently located adjacent to the Blue Line. I spoke with manager Lynn Caldwell about their decision to locate so close to the rail. One thing she noted was that even in Charlotte, they still struggle with the auto centric thinking in building support for the rail. (market photos from flickr user energysmartclt)
Q: Why choose to locate next to the light rail?
A: It was actually a coincidence. We were originally located in Plaza-Midwood, and when the market needed to move the person who owned the lot in South End contacted me to talk about leasing his property. But I saw the light rail as a definite asset. We were, and are, the only market in Charlotte on public transportation of any sort, and the light rail gives us particular visibility.
Q: Why did you choose anothe location close to the light rail?
A: The new location isn't quite as close to an actual stop, though when the trolley runs on the weekend it stops close by.
Q: Is the space that you locate in expensive due to it's location next to the blue line?
A: I don't think that the light rail has done a great deal to increase property values, but I could be wrong. The City of Charlotte would have more data on that. I've certainly seen more development and transition along the light rail corridor in the last couple of years!
Q: Does the growing popularity of local markets with urban living drive you to locate close to the line?
A: I am certainly hoping that Charlotteans who live, work, and play along the light rail corridor will visit us more often. However in Charlotte the light rail really doesn't go many places at this point. They are talking about extending to the University area soon, and I expect that we will see more benefits then.
Q: What kind of demographics would you say use the market? Younger financially successful? Lower class inner city? Mixed?
A: It is mixed, but the demographic that I saw at our opening on Saturday was primarily the 28 - 40 age group families with kids, or gay/lesbian couples in that same age bracket. I would definitely say mid to upper class. Local food has the perception that it is more expensive, though I would argue that it represents the true value of the food, vs the cheap, fast, "convenient" packaged food that our culture has come to expect because of what I call the "Walmart effect."
Concerning bicycling in Charlotte, they have an aggressive plan of adding bike lanes and greenways. I tracked down their long range plan by region on the CATS website and they have existing bikeways that parallel and intersect the current Blue Line as well as plans to grow it. It has been a little more difficult to gauge the bicycling demographic in Charlotte so I cannot speak on how well the plan has been accepted. However, it is notable that CATS has a plan in place for the long term and that it ties in with their rail and bus services. If I can tie this in locally with groups such as The Indy Cog, I would say that the Charlotte Area Bicycle Alliance has been called on often to weigh on cycling related planning.
Actually, when I think about it, Charlotte's Bicycling community turned up more advocacy than the light rail. I posted about this recently when I started researching that it was difficult to track down any kind of Charlotte Urban Advocacy blogs. Perhaps I missed them, but I have been unable to track down anything near to my own blog, or that of my fellow Indianapolis bloggers UrbanIndy, UrbanOut, A Place of Sense, Dig-B, The Heidelberger Papers and American Dirt.
As you can see, the light rail in Charlotte has produced many economic investment opportunities already. It's impact on the region cannot be denied, even by local detractors. It is still considered one of the youngest light rail routes in the country and yet it has already positioned this community to move ahead in regards to transportation driven land use. Recently however, the Charlotte Observer reported that the revenue being collected from this sales tax, has remained flat over the past 5 years with the transit agency collecting roughly $60 million in tax revenue. As a result, the planned expansion of the blue line, all the way to the northeast end of their 485 beltway, has been cast in doubt. There is talk of extending it only 4 miles initially (instead of the planned 11 miles), with the rest coming in phases as the tax revenue rolls in. This puts the entire rail and streetcar network in jeopardy of being completed period, while being completed on time is at this point, likely not possible.
Conclusion: I would CERTAINLEY be remiss if I didn't mentioned that I have never been to Charlotte nor have I ridden their light rail line. I am armed with my web browser, a keen sleuthing nose on google, and the will to pick up the telephone and talk to a few people. So in that regard, I suppose this entire write up could be called an opinion editorial. But it is all that I have and no one is employing me to go study other city's transportatoin systems yet. I will note that one employee of CATS did not return my phone call or an email soliciting questions. In that regard, I was a bit put off but did not let it throw me off the trail. However, in looking at what Charlotte has implimented, and the fact that they are nearing 20,000 daily boardings, I would say that this should be a red light to local transportation planners on implimenting our first rail line. Our NE Corridor is being billed as a "commuter line" with frequent daily service inside the loop to what appears to be 38th street area. Im not sure what that final spot will be, but the last I knew it was being based upon the latest findings from the IndyGO rider survey. Exactly how they all tie in, I do not know. Again, Im not in the business. Some of the big differences though are that a line from downtown Indy to Fishers, is going to be about 17 miles. That would be along my previously advocated proposal (which was submitted to Indyconnect BTW) which took city streets from South St @ Union Station to 116th street. Charlotte's nearly 10 mile line cost around $425 million which illustrates the cost of a full out double track system from downtown to the north side suburb. Perhaps a compromise of of single track all the way to 116th street with double track inside the loop can be made.
The last conclusion I will make is in regards to sales tax collection. If we examine what is currently happening in Charlotte, as well as in some other cities across America, we can conclude that we may not be able to collect enough capital to operate the proposed Indyconnect system. The initial intent of the Indyconnect proposal stated that Indianapolis has enough in its long range plan to cover capital expenses with a little bit more added in from sales tax collection. In looking at how much other cities have spent on rail, I highly contest that our total rail system could be built for $1.2 billion. Thus, if we can only hope to collect an extra $60-$100 million for operations (rough estimation), coupled with the roughly $50 million from property tax collected that IndyGO currently gets, that positions us for only $100-$150 million in annual operating expenses. Without going into a system wide examination of all the buses Indyconnect's vision includes, and all the rail vehicles required, I cannot give a firm recomendation whether this will be enough money. But given the vastness of the region to be served, and a general understanding of other cities from observations, I have a feeling we will need to approach $200 million give or take some to operate what Indyconnect is advocating.
As always, I appeal to my readers to give any input on this. Maybe someone from Charlotte is reading, and can offer some further insight (or refute some of mine) on this topic.
My recent studies have led ME to put Charlotte's LYNX Blue Line Light Rail under the microscope. Nothing is sacred and I have scoured the internet from 3rd party write ups about it, to the CATS transportation & planning site. One thing that I consider to be of valuable resource, is the common man's voice. In that regard, I am VERY proud of our hometown Indianapolis bloggers. There seem to be quite a few of us with a vested interest in how our environment is shaped and whether or not we are being heard by the right people (though I suspect we are having a good affect), we are doing the right thing. Everything from urban development news, transportation upgrades, etc... WHATEVER is mentioned. All you have to do is look down my blogroll and you can find all manner of Indy blogs from bicycle advocacy to IndyGO riders to examiners of our built environment. It's a smorgasboard of reading available to those looking.
When I went looking for the same thing in Charlotte, I wasn't able to find anything of the sort. I even went to the streetsblog network who map out a large number of blogs based on the region and found only 3 listed for Charlotte of underwhelming, or confusing, nature. Google turned me on to a number of real estate blogs. Really? If I need to find a place to live in Charlotte, I know where to start looking. But if I want to know about people who ride their bikes to work, or how their urban environment is evolving, I find nothing of the sort.
I could be completely off base here and if I am, SOMEONE please correct me because I would love to read something approaching what we have here in Indy. What this does do though, is inspire me. It gives me hope that there are enough people here that care about how our city is growing (and all metrics show that we continue to thrive). So I offer kudos to my fellow Indy bloggers. Keep up the good work! You all make us look great!