“The whole area down there in the south corridor was formerly an industrial area — a lot of textiles mills once upon a time. Then those had gone by the wayside and the area was in decline and deteriorating. There were businesses engaged in marginal activities in the corridor along the way,” Tober says.
“Now the corridor is thriving. There’s new investment going in. Old buildings being modernized and reused. New buildings being built. Brownfield sites being reclaimed. Transit-oriented development going on in several of the stations and more being planned.”
Tober says the property tax base has increased from generating about $250,000 for the city in 1998 to now generating nearly $7 million for the city with another $12 million for the county, which in 1998 earned around $500,000. With the property tax revenues seeing such a substantial increase, Tober estimates that with state and federal funding included, the light rail project will be paying for itself in nine or 10 years, and as he says it, “the next 40 or 50 years are gravy.”
A Little Different
Ron Tober explained to me that CATS is a little different than most other public transit agencies. For one, they aren’t just a public entity operating within a city, they are actually part of the city government itself.
“We’re in a kind of a unique setup here,” Tober explains. “I’m a city employee.”
“We’re part of the city. We have a policy board that provides oversight and policy direction in the transit system that consists of elected officials from all the local governments, including the county and the towns, but the city is where the transit system here is housed administratively, which from a positive standpoint has helped us in the land-use front tremendously.
“We have a transportation cabinet and the planning director, myself as a transit person, the director of the Charlotte Department of Transportation, who does roads and traffic and the city’s engineering director, we all sit on this cabinet together. And so infrastructure, sidewalk, streets, traffic planning, land-use planning, all this stuff gets done together.”
Tober explains that CATS was built from the ground up with land use and transit-oriented development in mind.
“Our big thing is land use, the city’s adopted land-use policies … the city and the surrounding towns have all adopted very transit-supportive land-use policies, zoning ordinances, as well as planning guidelines and design guidelines. And that’s a big deal. I mean that’s why we’re getting the start of a lot of the development that’s occurring along that corridor,” Tober says.
“We’ve seen — I’ve got some numbers now. [The] tax increase values that are going on there — I mean they are astronomical!”
Tober says the plan for CATS is to add four other corridors and a streetcar line by 2030, but that the south corridor line was planned even before he got there.
“There were a couple of reasons for that,” Tober says. “Interstate 77 South going towards South Carolina is the heaviest traveled corridor in the area. There was an existing railroad right of way that was available there, most of it was abandoned by the Norfolk Southern Railway, and there was potential for redevelopment to occur of significant potential. The die was pretty well cast.”
When he arrived, the city department that would one day be CATS was starting to do major investment studies on the four other corridors, but he was troubled by the fact that the heaviest traveled bus corridors, including the system’s most used corridor, which accounted for almost 18 percent of ridership, weren’t a part of any of those.
To alleviate this problem, Tober says they looked to Portland for inspiration.
“We added a streetcar project using the Portland approach, using modern streetcar operation and the Portland construction approach to replace our two heaviest bus routes for efficiencies sake, higher capacity rather than continuing to run buses every two or three minutes, 40-foot buses, and for economic development potential along those roads.”
With the plan updated and the first corridor already underway with preliminary engineering, CATS heard those words every agency wants to hear — what’s next!