News: Charlotte Exclusives

Thud, Thud, Thud Went the Trolley

No evidence of demand for expanded service

Item – Dateline: South End. After several months of midday service, the Charlotte trolley on Monday begins its long-awaited rush-hour service. All of five (5) paying customers show up to pay their dollar and take their ride into town.

Item – Dateline: I-485 Corridor. After several years of delays and repeated changes in the completion date, on Tuesday the Charlotte Beltway is finally connected to Interstate 85. Hundreds of cars line up to use the seven-mile stretch, which provides a vital link to Charlotte-Douglas International Airport.

Now what do these events tell us about transportation priorities in the Queen City? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? If you said our priorities are seriously out of whack, you are sadly correct.

What started out as a $19 million pipe-dream and now stands as a $40 million boutique affectation, the trolley simply cannot be justified as a sensible use of scarce tax dollars. Ridership will never expand behind convention-goers and visitors who do not have easy access to cars or familiarity with the city’s roads. If downtown hotels and/or business along the route want to fund it, great.

But the simple fact is as a commuting option, a close-in trolley will not appeal to people who have to get into their cars to leave home. You might as well continue driving past the trolley line and park at your downtown destination and thus preserve your travel flexibility for the day.

Or if you are a real train freak, wait for the weekend and drive up to Spencer and the North Carolina Transportation Museum. Thomas the Tank Engine makes regular runs up there, a real fantasy get away for the whole family, far from the hard reality that Charlotte is not serious about effective transit solutions.

And serious only begins to address the road-building woes the 485-85 link typifies for the city and Mecklenburg County. At least a decade late in meeting rising demand, the Beltway is just now beginning to fulfill a primary purpose, providing alternate routes for I-85 and I-77 traffic around the center city. For years the de facto western leg of the Beltway has been I-77, greatly straining that artery, and contributing to long back-ups both north and south of Charlotte proper. The I-85 link should help this problem immediately.

But other problems remain. Much of the Beltway along the Southeastern leg is already obsolete as it was foolishly and with great malice aforethought built with only four lanes. The official, working explanation may be that NC Department of Transportation planners always envisioned this stretch as rural, but that is itself a stretch considering the great swath of six and eight-lane I-85 which now wings wide of Greensboro and into trackless wilderness.

A better explanation is a clumsy governmental attempt at behavior modification. Somebody, somewhere must have feared too much road in Southeast Mecklenburg would push development into South Carolina.

And so Charlotte is stuck with a misallocation of resources that will take years to unwind. This is not just a matter of cars vs. trains vs. buses, or unique to Charlotte. All too often the wrong road projects get funded all across North Carolina. Actual demand for lanes gets lost in political horse-trading and out-dated formulas. For that reason, Charlotte cannot afford to spend millions on transit system virtually no one uses while roads go begging and bogging down.

Responsible and professional leaders would not be afraid to pull the plug on trolley service whose ridership could fit comfortably in an SUV.