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Panelists recommend buses and streetcars, not light rail, for Independence Boulevard

For Independence Boulevard, light rail is out. Streetcars and bus rapid transit are in.

Those were the recommendations from Urban Land Institute representatives during a presentation in Charlotte City Council chambers today.

John Sedlak, one of the panelists from ULI’s Daniel Rose Center for Public Leadership in Land Use, said that in addition to its expense, a light-rail system down struggling Independence Boulevard — one of the options proposed by the Charlotte Area Transit System in 2006 — might not be the sort of economic catalyst the area needs.

Light-rail does not fit within the panel’s vision to turn Independence Boulevard into a limited-access freeway. The current plan to install a fixed rail line in the center of the thoroughfare would be less accessible to residents, the panelists said. Also, the line’s economic impact could be blunted, because it would be tough for light-rail passengers to access commercial development, they said.

Sedlak, executive vice president for the Houston Metro, said a better model would be “rubber tire” transit in the form of high-quality bus service, using vehicles similar to the ones used by Greyhound or Megabus.

“Very high quality transit can be provided through a bus rapid transit system,” he said.

The buses would run in high-occupancy toll lanes, which the panelists also recommended be built along Independence Boulevard in part to help generate revenue for other transit projects.

“These HOT lanes would have the ability to be utilized by busses, by vanpools and by carpools,” Sedlak said. “You may even have opportunity for a single occupant in a private vehicle to pay their way in during congested periods.”

The bus rapid transit offers a driving alternative to long-distance commuters, said panelist Jeremy Klopp, principal of Walnut Creek, Calif.-based Fehr & Peers transportation consultants. But locals need a way to get around, too, he said.

For such riders, ULI panelists suggested putting streetcar lines on Monroe Road and Central Avenue, connected by bus routes along perpendicular streets or even an additional streetcar line along Sharon Amity and Albemarle roads.

The model — Independence Boulevard to serve the long-distance commuter, and the neighborhood streets to serve community members — would lead to different types of commercial development along each part of the corridor, said Carlton Brown, panel co-chair and chief operating officer of real estate development company Full Spectrum of New York.

The vision Brown presented was for more big developments, such as big-box stores and car dealerships, along Independence Boulevard to catch travelers’ eyes from the freeway. The parallel streets of Monroe Road and Central Avenue offer a unique opportunity to encourage more small businesses to open there, he said.

Some east Charlotte community members questioned the reasons for using a streetcar along Monroe Road instead of building a commuter-rail line along existing railroad lines. But Sedlak said a streetcar was ideal. Unlike a commuter rail, which is designed for the long-distance rider and usually stops every five miles or so, a streetcar is designed to make frequent stops, he said.

The streetcar also had an advantage over buses because it’s a permanent piece of infrastructure and, therefore, likely to spur economic development along the street, he said.

As with many of Charlotte’s other transit projects, the funding picture for the new plans were unclear, even as panelists urged city staff to develop a plan for the corridor and start making adjustments quickly in order to build investor confidence in the area.

The panel recommended that officials think outside the box when it comes to funding by considering public-private partnerships and even looking for those willing to donate money for the project. The HOT lanes might also bring in enough revenue to help fund some of the projects, the panelists said.

Other recommendations from the panelists included more community gardens and parks in the east Charlotte neighborhoods, moving the location of the state-operated farmers market from Billy Graham Parkway to Independence Boulevard and establishing a task force made of businesspeople, community leaders and the city’s elected officials and staff.

Caitlin Coakley can be reached at caitlin.coakley@mecktimes.com.

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