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Atlanta leaders look to Charlotte's transit success

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

CHARLOTTE -- For almost two decades, the little lot lay vacant beside the railroad tracks, growing weeds. A few miles south of Charlotte, N.C., the lot was abandoned by its occupant and environmental authorities said the soil was contaminated.

Today, clean-up is underway and there are plans to construct condominiums on the lot, alongside the city's brand new light rail train line.

"Developers seem to believe that if it's a train, people will ride it and they will build around it," said Keith Parker, the chief executive officer of the Charlotte Area Transit System. "We are truly in the midst of a public transit revolution here in Charlotte."

Four months ago, this North Carolina municipality of 1.5 million metro residents opened the first branch of a proposed light rail system. Stretching from center city, 9.6 miles south, with stops at 15 stations, the electric train has seen an average daily ridership of 12,000 people -- 33 percent more than projected. It has attracted $1.9 billion in development and redevelopment to what was a dilapidated area.

Charlotte officials are hailing the light rail as a success, and some Atlanta officials are looking at the sister city to see how it was done.

"Charlotte is leaving us behind when it comes to planning transportation and implementing those plans," said Kay Pippen, president of the Henry County Chamber of Commerce.

"In my lifetime, Atlanta ceased to be the banking capital of the South. Today that's Charlotte. I certainly hope that in my lifetime Atlanta will not cease to be the transportation hub of the South, and allow Charlotte, or any other city, to take our place."

Pippen and more than 40 other supporters of regional public transportation in Atlanta visited Charlotte last Thursday in a Transportation Planning Board trip. Leaders from county governments, the Atlanta Regional Commission, Georgia Department of Transportation, Georgia Regional Transit Authority and Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority boarded a GRTA Xpress bus on a "fact finding trip."

Charlotte officials spoke about their integration of land-use planning and transit planning, transit funding and the state's half-percent sales tax, the transportation system plan overview, the transportation governance and the political environment.

Population was ballooning, and the city was sprawling in Charlotte in the 1990s, said Laura Harmon, Economic Development Program Manager. With the growth, the miles each person drove each day increased rapidly and the population density dramatically declined. Though the city sees itself as pro-business and proudly pro-growth, the unstopped sprawl caused questions.

"We wanted to question how we grow," Harmon told the Atlantans Thursday.

The Charlotte officials identified a need for sustainability, protecting livability, and the desire to be a city that wasn't strangled by interstate gridlock. They wanted growth, but they wanted controlled, perfected and focused growth.

With a political coalition of businesses and environmentalists, urban and suburban leaders, chambers of commerce and unions, developers and state and federal representatives, the city adopted and promoted a transportation plan, and received funding through sales taxes and bonds.

"We built a partnership and a coalition of people who don't normally sit together, and it gives me chills sometimes," said Natalie English, of the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce.

Atlanta leaders said Charlotte's successful experience points to the importance of vision, leadership and cooperation. "Working together, you make it happen," said Cheryl King, director of the Transportation Planning Board. "You've got to have the vision. They had the vision. You've got to have the vision, and it catapulted them forward."

Kay Pippen, from the Henry County Chamber of Commerce, said the trip highlighted the importance of leadership and the connection between economic well-being and infrastructure investment.

"I hear it repeatedly," she said, "every time I visit another locale that is doing well economically. What I hear is, you must invest in your own community and its infrastructure. You don't get it by doing nothing and always opposing taxes."

Sam Olens, chairman of the Cobb County Board of Commissioners and the Atlanta Regional Commission, said what he saw was reassuring, reaffirming and a call to action.

"I've spent enough time watching," he said. "I want to do. We could be building instead of fighting. We've had enough delay. I'm interested in building ... We're letting a city which has historically been behind us get ahead of us."

Charlotte, though, is not metropolitan Atlanta.

The North Carolina transportation system is a city department, and most of the driving force behind the planning and the establishment came from the city government, with other smaller cities, and some area counties signing on to the city's project. In Atlanta, where the region spans 10 very diverse counties, and one rail line might involve more cities than all of the Charlotte area municipalities put together, things are more complicated.

"From the perspective of Atlanta," said Harmon, Charlotte's economic planner, "it's a matter of collaboration between all those jurisdictions, which is a big challenge because you guys have so many."

Even in the smaller Charlotte, inter-government agreements aren't all entirely friendly and totally secure. The chief executive officer of the Charlotte Area Transit System, Keith Parker, said he reports to three bosses, and the system's board chairmanship is set up to annually rotate in what is hoped will be a balance of city and county power sharing.

"The most difficult part is getting all those financial participants in line," Parker said. "We are only one major disagreement from the system sort of crumbling. So far, the system's been sort of positive enough that we've been fine."

Eldrin Bell, chairman of the Clayton County Board of Commissioners and of the Transportation Planning Board, said the trip showed some of the reality of some of the promises of rail lines. It also showed the Atlanta region officials some of the dangers and pitfalls.

"We didn't just learn what was good there. We're learning from their mistakes," Bell said. Charlotte's mistakes, the chairman said, include massive annexations, overdependence on a single-funding mechanisms and tenuous governance structure.

Bell also said, while Atlanta faces larger challenges in the construction of regional public transportation, it holds greater promises and greater hopes.

"We're not competing with them," he said. "We can learn from them, but we're competing with China and India."