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Politics

Business Alliance Study Says Transit Plan Would Ease Congestion, Generate Billions. But There Are Hardly Any Details.

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The city of Charlotte has proposed a $13.5 billion transportation plan that includes a new light-rail line from Matthews to Belmont.

The Charlotte Business Alliance presented a report Tuesday that estimated the economic impact of the city of Charlotte’s proposed $13.5 billion transportation plan, saying the metro area would lose $28 billion in economic output by 2050 if “congestion isn’t addressed.”

But the study also left out details, such as whether the transportation plan would actually relieve that congestion.

It also didn’t explore whether the money could provide more benefits if spent in other ways, such as by emphasizing greenways and roads instead of light rail.

“We didn’t do more of an Opportunity Costs (study), where you have one pot of money and (decide) where should we best spend that,” said Daniel Findley, a senior research associate at NC State’s Institute for Transportation and Research Education at North Carolina State University.

The Business Alliance paid NC State’s ITRE $42,500 for its work. UNC Charlotte’s Urban Institute also worked on the report.

Findley said ITRE used an economic forecasting model called IMPLAN. He said it showed that if congestion isn’t addressed, the Charlotte metro area would lose out on up to 126,000 jobs, $10.1 billion in wages, and $28 billion in economic output by 2050.

The study then suggested the city’s transportation plan would recoup those losses. That plan focuses heavily on light rail, commuter rail, and expanding the bus system. It would also spend money on sidewalks, greenways, bike lanes and roads.

The report looked at the economic impact of every $100 million spent on various modes of transportation and then extrapolated those benefits over the entire $13.5 billion plan.

But the report made several assumptions that weren’t supported by data:

The report never showed that the transportation plan will take cars off the road. For instance, the Red Line commuter rail line to Lake Norman is part of the plan. There is nothing in the report that looks at how many cars are expected to be on Interstate 77 over the next 30 years, and how many vehicles would be taken off the highway if the train were built.

The same is for the Silver Line, which would run along Independence Boulevard and Wilkinson Boulevard. There is no detail on how many cars it would take off those roads.

In Charlotte and across the nation, transit systems were struggling even before the pandemic. In Charlotte, the number of bus riders peaked at 23 million annually in 2013. In 2019 ridership had fallen to 14.5 million.

The report doesn’t consider the impact of spending more money on bikes lanes as opposed to say building a light-rail, or a light-rail line as long as planned. It also doesn’t consider the economic impact of building more roads, even though the report showed the roads and highways produce more economic activity than any other mode of transportation in the plan.

During the virtual presentation, there was a question from Greg Boulanger, a vice president with HNTB, an engineering and construction firm that builds roads as well as transit. He noted that the study showed roads and highways produced the most economic impact, and then asked why Charlotte shouldn’t spend more money on roads?

Roads are only a small fraction of the $13.5 billion plan.

Findley agreed that roads do have more economic impact, but he said that could change in the future.

“Our study does show they have a slightly larger impact although I do want to mention that a lot of that relates to our existing paradigm because we have a land use and transportation system that’s built around the automobile,” Findley said.

But he added that it’s important for residents to have choices in transportation.

The study compared the Charlotte metro area under the $13.5 billion plan to the region in what it called a “Do Nothing” scenario.

But a “Do Nothing” scenario is not realistic.

The N.C. Department of Transportation has budgeted hundreds of millions of dollars on highway projects over the next decade. It’s building express toll lanes on Interstate 485. The state has budgeted money to widen Interstate 77 in south Charlotte and add toll lanes this decade.

And the city of Charlotte is going to use bond money to build sidewalks, greenways, and bike lanes over the next decade.

When asked about those specific projects and how much economic activity they would generate, Findley said he didn’t know the details.

Findley was asked whether the pandemic and having more people work from home could change those projects. He said ITRE accounted for that by also having a “low projection” of economic impact, though it’s unclear if the group did a specific analysis of how people working virtually would impact the transit plan.

The Alliance said it will use the study to help build support for the plan.

“The point of the study is to inform what is done and make sure we are being smart about it and to evaluate all types of transit,” said Janet LeBar, the alliance’s chief executive. “And we’re excited about what the study shows and hope that the rest of the region through our conversations and collaborations is really going to get us to a point where we just aren’t doing nothing.”

But the biggest audience will be Republican legislative leaders in Raleigh. They need to sign off on the proposed penny sales tax increase to help pay for the plan. If the General Assembly and Mecklenburg Commissioners agree to place the tax on the ballot, voters could decide on the tax next year.

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