Whether you build it or not, they will come

Whether you build it or not, they will come

- in Weekly Briefing

Thoughtfully planned public transit is key to preserving the Triangle’s quality of life

In one of his best malapropisms, the famous murderer of baseballs and the English language, Yogi Berra, said the following about a popular St. Louis restaurant:

“Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

In a few years, Berra’s at once ridiculous and completely logical statement might be applicable to a somewhat larger piece of real estate: the Triangle.

According to study after study, the fast-growing Research Triangle region of North Carolina is well on its way to becoming the Atlanta or Houston of the mid-Atlantic – a vast and sprawling Sunbelt metropolis choked in automobile traffic and smog and bereft of a truly vibrant, urban core that one would expect to accompany such a large population center.

Projections indicate that a million people or more are likely to be added to the region’s current population of 1.5 million in the next 20 years. To make matters even more complicated, demographic changes promise to make the Triangle of the 2030’s a grayer population in which one in seven persons is over age 65.

In other words, absent some kind of intentional and thoughtful intervention, the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill region risks going the way of Berra’s famous restaurant; a place done in by its own success.

Public transit

As planners have known for more than a century, however, there is a ready solution to the problem of out-of-control sprawl: public transportation. By investing now in public transportation, Triangle residents can spare themselves a whole lot of pain and suffering in the future.

The idea is obvious and straightforward: Build a thoughtfully planned network of light rail and expanded, easy-to-access bus service now – before things get too far out of hand – and stand back and watch as homes and businesses cluster more densely in the areas surrounding the new transit lines and stops. Such patterns of development, in turn, help preserve green and open space, recreation opportunities, and natural resources like clean air and water – that is, many of the things that drew people to the region in the first place. Add to this the fact that transit discourages automobile use and promotes walking and the potential benefits become even more obvious.

Durham voters will get the first chance among Triangle residents to vote on such a plan in the election that concludes this coming Tuesday as they say “yes” or “no” to a proposed half-cent sales tax hike that would be earmarked toward a transit effort.

Of course, constructing public transportation systems isn’t without risk. There are lots of potential pitfalls – especially when it comes to assuring that all segments of the population gain access. As is frequently the case with highways, rail lines and bus systems have sometimes neglected less affluent areas even though people of modest income typically make up a large proportion of the riders.

A closely related problem revolves around the housing that tends to develop next to transit – especially light rail. As we have seen in Charlotte with the successful LYNX trains, rail lines and stops are magnets for yuppie developments that tend to quickly escalate beyond the price range of lower-income residents. Without care, rail lines can contribute to gentrification that displaces poor people without providing them an alternative place to live. The following is from a report prepared by the N.C. Budget and Tax Center earlier this week entitled “Investments in public transit: Why equity matters”:

“Last year, housing and transportation accounted for 55.1 percent of expenditures for the average lower income American household. The average national costs of these two necessities jumped 10.5 percent and 11.2 percent, respectively, over the last five years, while national median household income dropped 3.1 percent during the same period. Rising costs and falling incomes affect where a person can afford to live and work, greatly impacting one’s ability to be self?sufficient.

While living near a transit stop can free up a portion of an individual’s transportation expenditures, research shows that a reverse trend occurs with housing expenditures. A 2010 report indicates that in the majority of cases studied, neighborhoods surrounding new transit stations are occupied primarily by renters and tend to experience increases in housing costs and gentrification a few years after the transit service begins. This study also found that these neighborhoods tend to attract higher?income residents who are less likely to use public transit compared to people who are transit?dependent but who are often “priced out” of the neighborhood.”

So, what to do?

Investing in affordable housing

Fortunately, there is a solution to this dilemma. As is detailed in the Budget and Tax Center report, governments can avoid the problem of gentrification by assuring that affordable housing is a part of any development plan.

According to the report:

“As policymakers in North Carolina upgrade and extend public?transit options across the state, they can build affordable?housing measures into transit plans….Affordable?housing measures generally have two aims: to preserve existing affordable housing and to create new affordable housing. Policymakers can achieve these equity goals near new transit by using one or more available tools. For instance, local policymakers can establish a housing trust fund to provide public financing for existing and new affordable housing units near planned transit hubs. Amidst the planning stages of the Lynx light rail, which became operational in 2007, policymakers in Charlotte created a housing trust fund in 2001 to provide loans or grants to developers to secure affordable housing units.

Policymakers also have the option to establish an acquisition fund to purchase property near transit stations to preserve or produce affordable housing. These funds are designed to make the purchases early, before property values spike. In Charlotte, city officials created an acquisition fund in 2005 to purchase land near the planned transit stations along the South Corridor Light Rail Line for the development of mixed?income housing. City officials capitalized the fund with a $5 million appropriation.

Local policymakers can also offer incentive?based zoning or enable inclusionary zoning. Incentive?based zoning rewards developers with density bonuses or zoning waivers in exchange for an increased supply of affordable housing around transit stations. City officials in Chicago, Illinois use this tool to offer developers the option of either providing affordable housing units or paying a fee to a special fund for affordable housing. Inclusionary zoning typically involves mandatory requirements that call for developers to reserve 10 percent to 25 percent of new homes for affordable housing.”

In other words…get moving

The problems are not insurmountable. Higher density regions like the Triangle can preserve a high quality of life in the decades of rapid growth to come without further expanding the gap between the haves and have nots. The key, as is so often the case, is to have the foresight to make some modest investments ahead of time; to act (and maybe even sacrifice a little) now in order to avoid problems down the road.

Yogi Berra put it this way when counseling an audience against inaction and resting on one’s laurels: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” The Triangle would do well to heed his advice.


(Photo courtesy of:  Charlotte Area Transit System)

About the author

Rob Schofield, Director of NC Policy Watch, has three decades of experience as a lawyer, lobbyist, writer and commentator. At Policy Watch, Rob writes and edits daily online commentaries and handles numerous public speaking and electronic media appearances. He also delivers a radio commentary that’s broadcast weekdays on WRAL-FM and WCHL and hosts News and Views, a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina.