Thought with all the talk about lightrail in Charlotte, you guys might be interested in this. We ran it in the Dec. 4 issue of the UT.
University City Partners and the Future of Light Rail
The battle to bring light-rail from Center City Charlotte to the University City seemed for most to be over on November 6. Mecklenburg County voters overwhelmingly voted by a margin of roughly 70-30% not to repeal the current half cent sales tax dedicated towards transit. But according to local leaders with of University City Partners (UCP), there is still no guarantee that the Northeast line will be constructed.
Established in 2003, UCP serves as a Municipal Service District that acts as voice for local businesses in the University City including UNC Charlotte. Since its inception, UCP has been focusing on extending the rail line to the University City by listening to the desires of local businesses, as well as working closely with the Metropolitan Transit Commission (MTC), which ultimately handles where transit will be developed. Executive Director of the UCP Mary Hopper points out that all of UCP’s annual conferences up until this year have focused on putting University City on the “road to rail”.
“The two major studies that we funded all encompassed both transit oriented development and the need for transportation choices and much of our advocacy has centered around those same issues,” said Hopper.
UNC Charlotte has worked closely with UCP, with three of the twenty-five board members having ties with UNC Charlotte, Chancellor Dubois being one of those three. Hopper notes that “UNC Charlotte through Dubois has been a partner and often a leader,” in the effort to bring light-rail to the University City. She continues by praising his openness to “physically bringing rail to campus.”
The likelihood that the Northeast line would be constructed without tying the line in with UNC Charlotte is slim. Hopper estimates that the 2200 daily riders that UNC Charlotte would generate should give the line the boost it needs to secure federal funding. She also notes “the University City Area Plan that UCP funded and Council approved includes 4 station area plans” which “puts us ahead of where South Blvd was at this point in time.”
Just days before the referendum went up for vote in November, Ron Tober, head of Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS), announced that the Federal Transit Authority (FTA) would help fund an engineering study for light-rail along the Northeast corridor to determine if the line would be cost-effective or even worth funding. That, according to Dubois, is “very good news,” but he also warns that “it is too soon to tell whether the [light-rail] project will be funded” by the federal government. The current estimated cost for the project is around $750 million. About half of that money would come from the federal government, with the rest being split between state and local governments.
The federal funding is completely reliant on the results of the engineering study. If federal money falls through, it is highly unlikely the state or local government will be able to cover the shortfall thus placing a huge setback to light-rail in the University City anytime soon.
The initial plan according to the Chancellor puts the on-campus light-rail station just north of the Charlotte Research Institute off of Highway 29, somewhere behind Lots 25/26 and Laurel Hall. “Passengers could then disembark at that point, walk through the passageway of Laurel and Lynch Halls, and then cross the bridge to the new Student Union.” The line would then extend out to I-485.
Dubois goes on to say that, “this routing is quite preliminary and is subject both to engineering analysis and additional consultations on campus with students and other members of the campus community.”
UNC Charlotte sophomores Derek Tate and Jason Laws both believe the new light-rail line could benefit students, especially for those wanting to venture to Center City. Tate particularly likes how the light rail offers students like him who lack personal transportation the ability to get around the city easier.
Sophomore Mat Brown likes the idea of light-rail on campus, however he believes most students will continue to opt for their cars.
With the earliest estimated completion date of 2013 for the Northeast line, it is unlikely that many of UNC Charlotte’s current students will ever actually use it. The South line, which is the first light-rail section opened Thanksgiving weekend, almost one and a half years from the originally expected date.
Both the UCP and Chancellor Dubois are committed to making light-rail a reality in the University City no matter the challenges. For the university it means a much improved connection with Center City and the school’s new uptown campus. For the UCP, it means increased business as well as a sustainable infrastructure for the future.
Mary Hopper reminds proponents of light-rail that, “Although the process is not political, it really is so those of us who want rail to UNC Charlotte need to be hyper-vigilant.”
The university is also currently looking into expanding its on campus shuttle system, however, that campus safety issues drive expansion according to Dubois. The university is currently subsidizing the shuttle system by $600,000 a year. Future expansion for off campus shuttles is unlikely unless a new stream of revenue is generated.