CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- By nearly all accounts, the new light-rail project here has been an unexpected and nearly unprecedented success. But that hasn't stopped local and federal officials from wishing they could go back in time and take a second crack at planning it.
The 9.6-mile line linking the city's suburban South End with its downtown financial district -- known here as "Uptown" -- came on line in the fall of 2007 with its planners expecting solid but ordinary ridership. What they got, however, was ballooning interest that reached 16,000 daily weekday trips in its first year, nearly twice the federal projections and roughly 15 years ahead of schedule.
And therein lies the problem.
Charlotte officials had originally wanted to build the line -- the first in a planned network spanning the metro area -- with three-car trains. But the project was scaled back to a two-car system to comply with a complicated cost-effectiveness formula then at the heart of the U.S. Transportation Department's criteria for federal funding.
"In order to get the score we needed, they told us we had to find a way to cut the project's scope," said John Muth, chief development officer for the Charlotte Area Transit System. "We didn't really have other options if we wanted the federal funding."
Now, as the city plans the second phase of its light-rail project, a three-car, 11-mile extension of the existing line from Uptown into northeast Charlotte, it also must retrofit the existing track to carry the longer trains. That means not only buying more rail cars, but also lengthening platforms and boosting power distribution. Estimated price tag of the retrofits: an additional $67 million.
The Obama administration has taken notice, vowing to prevent what happened here from happening again. DOT is in the early stages of what it has dubbed its "livability" initiative, a comprehensive rewrite of the nation's transportation strategy that includes an overhaul of how road and transit projects are picked to receive federal funding.
In January, DOT took its first major step toward turning the livability concept into practice. It announced that it was rescinding a budget restriction put in place during the George W. Bush administration that focused transit selection primarily on how much a project was expected to shorten commute times relative to its overall cost.
The shift in selection criteria will significantly alter how major public transportation projects are chosen for federal funding by adding environmental gains and economic development into the equation, and DOT says it would have allowed the Charlotte light rail to proceed as originally planned.
The agency will soon initiate a new rulemaking and hold public hearings to better address the system. But in the meantime, DOT is using what Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff called "crude tools" to give more weight to livability and to prevent what happened in Charlotte from happening elsewhere.
"The cost-effectiveness index was running quite afoul of our livability agenda and brought about some really perverse results," Rogoff said in an interview. "The change has enabled us to right the wrong and not repeat the mistakes of Charlotte."
A buzz word with a 'branding challenge'
"Livability" has become both a buzzword and catchall at Obama's DOT, with department officials routinely using it to describe their focus on smart growth and urban planning policies.
Some observers maintain the agency has yet to fully lay out what it means when it uses the term, and some critics accuse DOT of tailoring the term's fluid definition for political gains.
They say, for instance, that when DOT is hyping the initiative to rural lawmakers, officials tout small-town sensibility; when they talk to those who represent more urban areas, the conversation turns to larger-scale projects for city centers like the one under way in Charlotte.
"There are times when they become almost nostalgic talking about main street," said Greg Cohen, president of the American Highway Users Alliance. "But I don't think people believe they mean that."
Rogoff does not dispute that livability means different things to different parts of the country. In fact, he said, that is one of its major selling points.
"It suffers a little bit from a branding challenge because the word is kind of amorphous and hard to define," Rogoff said. "But the reality is that depending on where you are, there are different ways to enable people to do all the things the Obama administration is trying to do with transportation policy: reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reduce consumption of foreign oil, give people broader transportation choices, and actually building out transit systems that people want to take where they want to go."
But detractors argue the push is an effort to force people to abandon their cars and trucks for a seat on public buses and represents the latest of what they see as a growing number of government intrusions into Americans' personal life.
In a Newsweek column in May, conservative writer George Will called Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood the "Secretary of Behavior Modification" and said the effort was an attack on Americans' right to chose where they live and how they travel.
"[L]ong before climate change became another excuse for disparaging America's 'automobile culture,' many liberal intellectuals were bothered by the automobile," he wrote. "It subverted their agenda of expanding government -- meaning their supervision of other people's lives."
Disproving a transit assumption
Home to the new NASCAR stock car racing hall of fame, Charlotte is not the first place most people think of when they hear about Obama's push for more "livable" cities. But when the president speaks of using a city's transit systems to shape its land use and economy, the picture he paints looks a lot like what Charlotte's planners have in mind for their city.
In year four of a 25-year plan, the city is laying the tracks for an intermodal passenger system with a full menu of mass-transit options, complete with light-rail trains dropping off passengers in Uptown and at a central high-speed rail station, and streetcars running from center city to the international airport.
The early success in Charlotte has proved false a long-standing assumption by some in the transportation community that urban planning would fail in Southern cities, said Chris Leinberger, a visiting fellow at the Brooking Institution and smart-growth advocate who has been tracking the city's progress.
"Good Lord, the success in Charlotte, along with other Sunbelt cities -- like Denver, Salt Lake City and Phoenix -- have shown that there is pent-up demand for walkable, urban development all across the country," Leinberger said. "And rail transit is prerequisite for that. It is the most important infrastructure investment that urban areas can make. If you're not building it today, it's akin to not building freeways in the 1960s."
The ridership numbers for the city's first light rail line help to make the case: More than 70 percent of the system's riders had previously never been regular passengers on Charlotte's bus service, according to the city.
As smart-growth advocates make the case for transit-oriented development, they also point to the economic benefits they say follow increased mobility and land use.
Leinberger likened transportation planning to "a rudder of a ship" that ultimately controls where and how private investment flows.
"It is essential to our future economic well-being that we get transportation investment right," he said. "I don't think we're going to get out of this economic ditch without getting it right."
To that end, Charlotte's planners say the city is expecting $1.8 billion worth of investments to be made along the first line by 2011.
More money needed
Regardless of the light rail's success, Charlotte's comprehensive transportation plans -- not unlike those of the White House -- appear to hinge on one major thing: funding.
The city paid for its share of the light-rail work with a half-cent sales tax approved by a city referendum -- and later upheld during a second vote on whether to repeal the tax shortly before the light-rail system opened.
The federal government paid for roughly $200 million of the original $463 million line, but so far has not committed to backing any portion of the retrofit or subsequent phases of the larger system.
City officials applied for federal aid through the stimulus program to help finance a proposed commuter rail project -- running from the center of the city north to neighboring commuter towns like Davidson and Mooresville -- but were shut out from a $1.5 billion pot that was oversubscribed by more than $50 billion.
"With no additional revenue coming from the federal government, this is going to be up to local jurisdictions to raise the money," said Leinberger. "There's just not sufficient money coming out of the federal government."
That is likely to prove difficult given that current city budget estimates predict a 13 percent drop in sales tax revenues.
Some of the more moderate critics of the livability effort say the administration has no business getting involved in local planning decisions and diverting funds away from traditional road and bridge projects at a time when federal and state transportation programs face massive funding shortfalls.
"My objection doesn't have to do with the stated goals, it has to do with where the money is coming from," Rep. Steve LaTourette (R-Ohio) told DOT officials earlier this month at a congressional hearing. "If this administration were going to deal with that, I wouldn't have a problem with it. But you're not."
FTA's Rogoff acknowledges the funding challenges but is undeterred.
"Ideally, we would love to have a robust, multiyear bill that addresses the funding needs," Rogoff said. "But without it, we can still make progress on trying to effectuate the polices that we want to realize."