News & Views » David Walters

Truths about Transit

Don't believe the naysayers

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Let me tell you two truths about transit: property values near rail lines increase; and everybody, even people who never ride the train, can benefit from lower property taxes.

There's a third truth: opponents of Charlotte's light rail plans don't want you to know these facts. Truthfully, I'd rather write on other topics, but our transportation condition is critical. The Feds are changing the funding rules, and the city's two English-language weeklies and its daily newspaper run articles attacking transit, promoting more road building or suggesting transit-related development will never work in Charlotte. Those of us who understand just how important rail transit and its related patterns of denser, mixed-use development are to Charlotte's future must put the record straight.

Local propaganda fosters false fears that proximity to rail transit lowers property values, when quite the opposite is true. Research from cities across the US, including Washington DC, Atlanta, San Francisco, New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Portland and San Diego all show the same trend: the closer property is located to a train station, the more valuable it becomes, and this is true for both residential and commercial buildings.

Over the last decade, for example, houses in Boston and Philadelphia neighborhoods near train stations sold for six to eight percent more than comparable homes without access to rail transit. In Washington and Atlanta, commercial rents increased substantially the closer buildings were to transit stops.

The enduring popularity of communities with access to transit reveals that demand is outstripping supply. Nearly one-third of new housing built over the next 20 years is likely to be in such denser, urban neighborhoods, a consumer demand the market can't yet meet. Many developers, politicians and newspaper columnists in Charlotte seem barely aware of this new reality. They're looking for the future in the rearview mirror.

But how does transit benefit people who don't ride the train? The example of Washington's Rosslyn-Ballston Metrorail corridor provides an answer. An article in the Washington Business Journal explains that the area includes five train stations and contains over 22 million square feet of office space, more than three million square feet of retail, and thousands of homes, all located within walking distance of the transit stops. Office rents are higher nearer the train stations and vacancy rates are lower. Planning policies actively guide this development to these focused locations while protecting the single-family character of adjacent neighborhoods further out. This is just what Charlotte's General Development Policies were designed to do until dinosaur developers forced changes on city planners that fundamentally weakened these objectives.

The economics are simple. The Washington article noted that this high-density development around the train stations "has an assessed value of more than $9 billion, generating 32.8 percent of the county's real estate tax revenue from only 7.6 percent of its land area. As a result, Arlington County has the lowest . . . property tax rates of any county in northern Virginia." So everybody benefits from lower taxes, even those who drive everywhere.

With evidence like this, you'd think people of all persuasions would see the logic of transit-oriented development and applaud Charlotte's efforts to build a brighter, more prosperous future. But no. Critics carp incessantly, but they offer no solution to our woes of congestion, sprawl and dirty air except to build more roads, the very policy that's landed us in this mess! We're only a few short years away from having air so bad that the government will cut off funds for road building. Undoubtedly these sprawl merchants are glad the Bush administration has relaxed EPA regulations on air quality the same way it's allowed more untreated sewage in our streams and rivers.

A local UNC-Charlotte report suggesting roads are a better investment than rail was trumpeted by the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce to suggest we should rethink our transit plans. But nationally, this debate is passe. Back in 2001, researchers at the national Center for Transportation Studies at MIT were quoted in Urban Land, the developers' magazine, as declaring that "people who said we need more highways were proven wrong. We are overwhelming our roadway network. . . . Public transit is part of the answer."

The self-defeating argument for more roads at the expense of rail is bad enough, but proclaiming transit-oriented developments could never work in Charlotte is even worse. This pessimistic statement suggests we're too dumb and ignorant to learn lessons from other Americans, or too boneheadedly parochial to even try.

While the actions of some developers and journalists give credence to this gloomy picture, I refuse to give up hope. I know some bright developers who get it. Some planners remain optimistic. A handful of commentators talk sense. I even know a few politicians who understand the issues! It's a huge task to drag Charlotte into the 21st century, but if we pull together, we can just manage it before we're overcome by the choking fumes of our car exhausts.

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