News: Charlotte Exclusives

Brave New Charlotte

Planners want you to ignore new research and move uptown

Spring is in full bloom in Charlotte, unmistakable proof that change is as beautiful as it is inevitable. Except, it seems, for some recesses of the land-use planning field which are locked in a cognitive cul-de-sac of false assumptions and stubborn denial.

Resistance to change can be seen in the reaction research in the latest American Planning Association journal received. A paper by Danish professor Bent Flyvbjerg — “How (In)accurate Are Demand Forecasts in Public Works Projects?” — dared to note that forecasts for passenger rail projects were overestimated by 106 percent and that forecast accuracy had not improved for 30 years.

“My team and I were shocked by our findings. For professional forecasters to be wrong by more than 100 percent and to make no improvement for decades is unheard of. Simple forecasting errors cannot explain this,” Flyvbjerg explained in an APA press release. “By routinely overestimating benefits and underestimating costs, promoters make their projects look good on paper, which helps get them approved and built. The only ones to pay are the taxpayers.”

Flyvbjerg went even further on his own, predicting that the $52 billion the current federal transportation bill would spend on mass transit would be wasted on projects like those planned for Houston, Dallas, and Charlotte. APA officials were not happy with such blunt criticism of projects that many planners in good standing supported.

But such criticism of status quo is not new, an earlier Flyvbjerg paper wondered “Costs in Public Works Projects: Error or Lie?” and almost a decade of his research has focused on so-called megaprojects and how officials mismanage and misrepresent them.

More important for Mecklenburg County, Flyvbjerg’s research is echoed in the conclusions reached by Ted Balaker of the Reason Public Policy Institute last June when he provided the only independent analysis of Charlotte’s light rail plans to date. Balaker found that by every measure light rail in Charlotte would do almost nothing to reduce congestion or improve air quality and cost millions more than expected while not doing it.

The evidence is overwhelming. The decades-long fight central planners have waged against so-called sprawl has been tremendously expensive and produced significant collateral damage with little to show for it. The cost of chronic traffic congestion, increased density, and purposely increasing the cost of housing all now have a clear track record.

None other than The New York Times recently noted that Portland’s decades-long pursuit of transit oriented development, a “new” idea for Charlotte, has driven families with kids from the city. Elementary schools are closing down as city planners favor smaller, more expensive dwellings. And parents with kids do not.

Another report for the Transportation Research Board examined the cost of traffic congestion to communities, congestion that would be unaffected by shifting one per cent of that traffic to light rail. The “Economic Implications of Congestion” found that for Chicago, for example, a 10 per cent reduction in travel time would net the local economy $980 million in savings from the delivery of business products and services. Another $350 million would be saved due to increased worker productivity and lower worker recruitment costs.

Another paper recently published in The Wharton Real Estate Review found a connection between local housing regulations which increased housing costs and the ability of a community to produce enough housing to meet job growth. There even appears to be evidence that too much housing regulation can actually halt job growth once it becomes too difficult to attract workers into an over-regulated area.

Such research reflects cutting edge-thinking. Instead of embracing it, Charlotte is in some sort of time warp, committed to the best land-use and transportation policy that 1985 can provide. Occasionally you can still catch a local official justifying Charlotte’s tired light rail and land-use plans by warning that to do otherwise would risk turning out like Atlanta. It is always unclear what this is supposed to mean considering Atlanta started building its own light rail system, MARTA, 30 years ago.

Despite such non-arguments, it is slowing beginning to dawn on even the most rah-rah elements of the local scene that Charlotte’s light rail plans are not an end in themselves. The more astute the are even beginning to notice that transit oriented development — the use of zoning and land-use regulations to ramp up density and increase the cost of housing — is not the end goal either. No, the object is nothing less than to remake the very demographics of the city and county.

Those hundreds of new uptown condos are supposed to attract empty-nesters and the otherwise childless who do not require much in the way of government services, certainly no expensive public schools, and they will not clamor for more road capacity on the county’s edges. They will pay taxes, however. Lotsa taxes.

Such is the model Charlottean of the 21st century: Spends a lot, but costs government little.