We’re in Charlotte, driving south out of the downtown (their “uptown”) along the route of the Queen City’s first light-rail commuter transit line, now under construction. When it opens in a year or so, the South End line will cover nearly 10 miles, with 15 stations, before terminating just short of Interstate 77. Our guides are from the Charlotte Area Transit System, or CATS, which is Charlotte’s counterpart–sort of–to our own Triangle Transit Authority. We’re joined by my friend Nina Szlosberg, who sits on the TTA board and the state Board of Transportation (she holds the environmental seat, as president of the Conservation Council of N.C.), and her mother, Elaine. By coincidence, they were visiting in Charlotte, and Szlosberg wanted to see the South End line, too.

Her take on it when we hit the end of the line? “It’ll make you a believer” in transit, Szlosberg says. “You can literally see the development coming right out of the ground before it opens.”

Yes, you can, which is what I’d heard CATS chief executive Ron Tober say in Raleigh earlier this year at a conference called “Designing Sustainable Cities.” Tober said (this was in February) that property values were already jumping in the South End, the result of $300 million worth of private-sector investments, and the best was yet to come. This in an older area of Charlotte that’s seen better days, and it was going downhill before the rail line was planned.

So in late August, with the TTA’s Durham-to-Raleigh rail line at least temporarily sidetracked, if not dead, I thought a visit to the South End could shed some light on the question of whether we should be giving our own first transit project a proper burial or fighting to keep it on life-support for future resuscitation.

To the hoots of its critics, the TTA had just admitted defeat and withdrawn its bid for federal funding to build the rail line. Opponents had long insisted that the line would have little ridership because it followed a freight corridor where few people live. The TTA’s view was that, since most of the businesses that used to hug the freight line are gone, the corridor is ripe for the kind of dense, urban development that only transit can serve–and spawn.

Build it, in other words, and the stores with the condos and offices above, all packed in close to the station stops, will come.

But, the Federal Transportation Administration said, you can’t count riders from hoped-for development, only from what’s there today–and what’s there today isn’t enough.

So the TTA’s plan was thrown back on “Plan B,” which calls for it to team up with a “master developer”–namely, the Raleigh-based firm Cherokee Investment Partners–and try to kick-start those transit-friendly projects itself, before the transit line is built.

And is that what happened in Charlotte?

Well, yes and no.

Yes, the South End line, built in a freight corridor not unlike the TTA’s, is bustling with energy in anticipation of the train line coming, though it wasn’t until CATS actually started to build it that development en route got serious.

But no, the Triangle’s not like Charlotte in some fundamental ways, one of which is that Charlotte’s land-use plans are closely aligned with its transportation planning, so that dense development isn’t just encouraged in designated transit corridors, it’s prohibited everywhere else. And Charlotte, before it built anything, designated not just the first corridor but the next four as well, and it blanketed the region with maps showing how the five would eventually be joined in a coordinated network.

By contrast, the Triangle’s planning, especially in Wake County, continues to allow, even favor, sprawl, while the idea of a transit system–the first corridor aside–remains vague.

Which was Szlosberg’s other take from Charlotte. It’s not enough, she said in an interview a few days later, to plan one rail line in a vacuum, or any single bus or rail corridor, for that matter. What the Triangle needs is what Charlotte has: A vision of how it wants to grow and an integrated transit and land-use plan that brings the vision into focus for everyone in the region. “We’ve never connected the dots,” she says.

What’s up in Charlotte?

Tracy Finch’s job is transit station area development coordinator, which means she pitches the CATS vision to developers, listens when they pitch back, and tries to get them to build more, not less, where the transit stations are going to be. In the South End corridor, she admits, business was pretty slow until about a year ago. But especially since the groundbreaking ceremonies in May, things have picked up a lot.

“I’m amazed at what’s been happening,” Finch says. “A few [developers] caught on to this early, but it’s really been since construction that people have started to jump on board.”

Unlike the Triangle, of course, Charlotte is a traditional center-city, with two of the nation’s biggest banks, Bank of America and Wachovia, headquartered in the middle and a suburban workforce feeding in from all directions. The new convention is in the city center, as is the new arena, the home of the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats. The South End line will run through the former (literally) before reaching its in-town terminus in front of the latter. Meanwhile, giant construction cranes are turning the hole in the ground where the old convention center used to be into “Epi Center,” a spectacular shopping, entertainment and condo complex. In short, uptown Charlotte is booming.

Oh, and parking’s at a premium in the uptown. You can see why, if you worked there or were headed for a game, you’d welcome a transit option. The South End rail line, which tracks alongside old South Boulevard, will be your first.

As we drive past the close-in stations, Finch ticks off the projects we’re seeing or will soon see down the line. They total 2,000 residential units so far, she says, plus retail and office space that push the cumulative investment over $300 million–before, remember, the line even opens.

Actually, the first project we view is finished, and went up on the heels of a little trolley line that ran in the South End corridor for a couple of years before the light-rail project got funded. The 67-unit Park Avenue building is a four-story townhouse development with front doors that literally open onto the tracks; the “other front” of the development, which faces the opposite way onto South Boulevard, has ground-floor retail stores.

It reminds me of Boston, where every stop on the “T” is surrounded by apartments over stores. Szlosberg’s mom says it reminds her of Europe (she grew up in London), where rail transit is the lifeblood of cities big and small.

But it’s the ninth stop, about four miles from the uptown, that Finch is most excited about. The Scaleybark station is located in what used to be an industrial area, now largely vacant. So the plan was to make it a park-and-ride on the assumption that folks coming aboard there would’ve had to drive in from nearby I-77 or I-85. So CATS bought a station site, the city bought an adjacent tract for the parking lot, and then it turned out that a private developer had purchased the next tract over and wanted to put all three together to build a single, big-time development on the combined 25 acres.

Bingo. That’s what makes transit work–dense developments up close to the line–but Scaleybark was far enough out of town that CATS wasn’t counting on much being there anytime soon. In fact, Finch tells us, she had trouble at first getting developers to think big enough about many of the South End stops. Her early feelers, she recalls, all came from builders who were thinking small, and cheap–not what Charlotte wants at all.

Until this hot Scaleybark prospect turned up, that is.

And who were these intrepid developers? It turns out they’re a pair of Raleigh guys, Jim Lumsden and Craig Briner, who go by the name of Green Hawk Inc., and they’re “deal partners” with Cherokee Investments–the same firm TTA plans to work with in the Triangle.

Small world. The two men (in another deal with Cherokee) are doing a project in Charleston, and they’d come to Charlotte to talk about it with new urbanist architect Terry Schuck–who just happened to be the driving force behind getting that little South End trolley line going.

As Lumsden tells the story, that’s when his partner Briner got turned on to the fact that Charlotte “was committed to transit, it was really going to happen, and we could get in front of it and do a lot of business here for a long time.”

Other developers wouldn’t take the risk? They wanted it.

The Green Hawk proposal, submitted two weeks ago in response to a request for proposals and still under review by Charlotte officials, includes 1,000 residential units in 11-story buildings, plus retail and office uses. (A grocery and offices for a new, for-profit law school are among the possibilities, Lumsden says.)

Cherokee is committed to 10 percent affordable housing units in any residential project it develops, so the Scaleybark plan would include 100 affordable and 900 market-rate units if and when it’s built out. Instead of a big parking lot, it would have a parking deck with some 315 spaces.

“The city wants maximum density with the least amount of parking” around every transit stop, Lumsden explains. “It’s really going to be a dense, mixed-use urban development.”

When I called them, Lumsden and Briner were in Charleston but keeping their fingers crossed about Charlotte, where they’re convinced that transit’s going to work and result in–now Briner is quoting Schuck –“this better way of life.”

Why better? Because it cuts commuting times, conserves land, saves gasoline and gets people back in touch with each other instead of isolating them in their cars.

“We’re all bought into this new urbanist idea, which is old urbanist in reality,” Briner laughs. “We think we’re such smarty-pants, but they did this kind of stuff 100 years ago.”

Are they as optimistic about transit in the Triangle as in Charlotte?

Well, they said, Charlotte’s main draw is the five designated transit-corridors, but it offers other enticements as well, including:

  • A $50 million city fund for sidewalks, bike paths and other transit-related improvements;
  • Money for affordable-housing projects that the developers don’t have to build themselves and that augment the market for any stores the developers do put in;
  • A form of tax-increment financing in “municipal improvement districts,” where the city determines that subsidies for things like parking decks will attract projects that otherwise couldn’t be built.

Raleigh, on the other hand, “has no logical limits on density,” Lumsden says. “They do have these plans,” Briner adds, “with circles on the map” to suggest places where density is preferred. “But they did not take it one step further and say here’s where we want it”–and not anywhere else.

As for tax-increment financing, the Raleigh City Council is currently studying whether to put some limits of where TIFs should be offered. But when developer John Kane asked recently for $75 million in TIF subsidies to build a parking deck at North Hills, the Raleigh Council had no guidelines to use, nor designated transit corridors, either.

In the face of such loose land-use planning, will Cherokee be able to introduce dense developments into a Durham-to-Raleigh transit corridor that has no transit?

“It’s a good question,” Briner says. “It’s a little chicken-and-eggy, I suppose.” It would be ironic, he adds, if Cherokee does get development going and the transit still doesn’t come. “That would just make the traffic congestion worse, because the roads there can’t handle it.”

“A ticking time bomb”

While Charlotte was licking its chops over developments on the South End line, the TTA’s trustees were licking their wounds back at their headquarters in Research Triangle Park. Faced with certain rejection in Washington, the board voted to withdraw its application for federal funding in August, and at the same meeting asked the region’s top transportation planners to sketch the consequences of no rail.

What followed, from Ed Johnston and Mark Ahrendsen, was doom-and-gloom not just about the lack of transit, but also the lack of roads, the lack of money and the lack of public understanding about what the future holds in terms of traffic congestion.

“It’s a ticking time bomb,” Johnston told the board. “The average citizen doesn’t realize how bad things are going to get when they start getting bad. And when they do realize it, it’s almost going to be too late.”

Unlike Charlotte, which has one regional transportation planning agency, the Triangle has two. CAMPO (The Capitol Area Metropolitan Transportation Organization) does the planning for Raleigh and the rest of Wake County; DCHC (Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro) handles Durham, Orange and Chatham. These are federally mandated (and funded) agencies that crunch the numbers on which formula-based federal transportation aid is distributed.

Johnston is with CAMPO, Ahrendsen with DCHC.

Anyway, Johnston’s got this map with red marks that show which roads on his side of the Triangle are already so congested they get a failing grade for service. Today’s situation: Some red. But at the rate the Triangle’s growing, even if all the roads that are currently planned get funded and built, and the TTA rail line is also funded and built (and it’s been planned for more than a decade), by 2030, the map is so covered in red that it’s been dubbed “the tomato map.”

And it gets worse, the two transportation planners warn. It’s not clear when, if ever, the TTA project will be built; meanwhile, the Triangle’s 2030 road-building hopes exceed our anticipated funding grasp by about $4 billion. So the tomato map is the best we can hope for unless something fundamental around here is changed.

Which is why, as far as the TTA board is concerned, a transit system is urgently needed, not to cure current congestion, but to help head off a future traffic nightmare. Otherwise, Durham County Commissioners Chairwoman Ellen Reckhow asks, don’t we risk “squelching” the Triangle’s growth?

No question about it, Johnston said. In fact, added John Claflin, TTA’s general manager, one reason the federal government didn’t like the rail project was that they doubted the congestion would ever get so bad. “They said, if you have the kind of congestion you’re talking about, you won’t have the growth,” Claflin said. Shortly after that meeting, Claflin resigned from the TTA.

According to Johnston and Ahrendsen, between one-third and half of the region’s spending is targeted for transit over the next 25 years. But when it comes to the question of what transit where, we’re far behind where Charlotte was a decade ago. By the mid-’90s, Charlotte had decided where transit should go (the five corridors) and was already well on the way to choosing what kind of transit was best for each. Its 2001 “Corridor System Plan” picked light rail for the South End, a commuter-rail system like what the TTA has in mind for its North Rail line, and a combination of streetcars and BRT (bus rapid transit) on the others.

Will a rail line go to the Charlotte Airport? No. It’s either a bus trip or a train to a bus.

When the system was planned, Charlotte officials went to the voters and won approval for a half-cent sales tax increase dedicated to transit. The Charlotte tax last year netted $65 million, compared to the $7 million a year the TTA gets from its dedicated transit source, a 5 percent tax on rental cars.

CATS’ stronger funding base was a big reason why it was approved for federal funding when the TTA wouldn’t have been–with more of its own money in hand, it needed only a 50 percent funding share from Washington, not the 60 percent share the TTA would’ve required. (State aid of 25 percent was included in both projects.)

Even so, CATS officials concede that had they submitted their South End plan to Washington just eight days later, after the FTA tightened up its funding requirements, they would’ve been rejected, too.

The big reason why Washington’s tightening up is that the Bush administration, busy cutting taxes and fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, held federal transit funding steady even though a host of long-planned projects all over the country were coming forward for final-construction grants.

Thus, the TTA’s line–which Washington funded to the tune of $100 million for planning, engineering and land acquisition–was about to be turned down for the $400 million needed to build it.

“Plan B–Better Planning”

So where does the TTA go from here? Board Chairwoman Carter Worthy, a commercial real estate broker, says the Durham-to-Raleigh rail corridor still makes sense. “People say our rail line isn’t in the right place because it’s not where the people are. But it is where the jobs are,” she says.

With three major universities en route, plus Research Triangle Park, four downtowns (counting Morrisville) and the state government center in Raleigh, fully half the region’s employment is within two miles of that freight line, Worthy points out.

But Worthy and her fellow board members also understand that a decade of below-the-radar-screen planning, combined with the constant sniping of the critics and lukewarm political support in Raleigh and Cary, has sapped the transit project of the excitement that surrounded it when it first came into public view in the mid-’90s. “People have become complacent,” said board member Jeff Merritt, a former Raleigh Chamber of Commerce economic developer who’s now in government relations for KB Homes. “Transportation as an issue is not on the top of the their list.”

Nor, Worthy concedes, does the public recognize the TTA as an able judge of its own project. That has board members wrestling with the question of how to rebuild the public’s trust when any process it proposes is sure to be ripped by transit’s opponents.

Out of that wresting, a two-pronged “Plan B” is about to unfold. Szlosberg, who heads the TTA’s communication committee, has been reaching out to leaders like ex-Gov. Jim Hunt and former State Deputy Transportation Secretary David King to help lead a six-month regional visioning process like the one Charlotte used to get started. It will draw on CAMPO and DCHC plans to get started (“We don’t need to go back to square one,” Szlosberg says), but nothing will be assumed, and everything questioned. Most importantly, it will be for and by the public–and completely transparent.

“We aren’t dug in to anything at this point,” Szlosberg says. “We have a wide variety of choices. We chose the rail corridor as a starting point 11 years ago. A lot has changed since then, so we need to overlay the data since then and see if that choice still makes sense.”

Meanwhile, the TTA is about to sign contracts with Cherokee Investment that will make the two organizations “development partners” around each of the 12 station sites the TTA already owns.

Since CEO Tom Darden started it in 1990, Cherokee has invested $1.5 billion in 500 places in North America and Europe, according to its Web site. Its job will be to raise the capital to buy even more land. Then Cherokee will do the planning and either develop the sites or beat the bushes for other developers who can do it with them.

Lee Norris, managing director in Cherokee’s Raleigh office, says the company’s in no hurry to decide where, between Durham and Raleigh, it should try to build first. “First, we have to sign the contracts, then we’ll get the planners out and see what we can do with it,” Norris says. “We need to go about this in a systematic, thoughtful way. It’s critical to the infrastructure of the Triangle that we get this right.”

One obvious place to look, though–and it’s clear Norris, who lives in nearby Cameron Park, is looking at it–is the old Dillon Supply Co. warehouse complex on Raleigh’s West Side, four blocks from Fayetteville Street and two blocks from the new convention center. Talking about it, his mind goes to the question of what makes the great cities of the world “cool.”

“It’s the way the streets and buildings come together–and it’s amazing, but who knows why?” Norris says. That’s what Cherokee wants to achieve here, if it can, in downtown Raleigh, Durham and everywhere in between.

“It’s pretty exciting stuff for us to be able to take our expertise and the organization that Tom [Darden] has put together to make a beautiful impact on the place where we live,” he says.

And while Cherokee’s at it, the TTA will be trying to build public support–not for one rail line, but for building a transit system like Charlotte’s. It may start with the rail line. Or it may start, like Charlotte did, with a little downtown Raleigh trolley–or Durham trolley.

But it will have as its goal allowing the Triangle to grow in a way that’s sustainable and makes the best use of scarce land by focusing on specific urban corridors.

That’s what the Triangle didn’t do a decade ago, Szlosberg says, and in that sense the TTA’s setback is actually a blessing in disguise, because it gives us as second chance to take a longer view and get our vision right.

“In retrospect,” she concludes, “the mistake we made isn’t that we were thinking too big,” Szlosberg says. “It’s that we weren’t thinking big enough.”