“Economic development does happen around fixed guideway transit systems,” Phoenix METRO Light Rail CEO Steve Banta said. “Transit brings people into your region.”
Pat McCrory, a former Charlotte, N.C., mayor and a candidate to be the next governor of that state, said a once blighted and crime-ridden area of Charlotte has now become a highly frequented arts district nicknamed “Noda” with increased housing prices.
McCrory was mayor of Charlotte — which is the home of Bank of America and was once America’s No. 2 banking capital in the U.S. behind Wall Street before the 2008 financial meltdown, according to CNN.com — for seven terms from 1995 to 2009. During his tenure, 200,000 jobs were created and Charlotte’s population grew by 20 percent, according to his website.
McCrory said the rail system has specifically increased spending by Charlotte residents in their 20s and 30s, as the downtown area became an entertainment center with the development of the transit system.
“You go there at one or two in the morning, Wednesday through Saturday night, and it’s packed. The streets are more crowded than New Orleans, and a lot of those people are getting on the bus line,” McCrory said.
Charlotte’s transit system, called Charlotte Area Transit System, includes a bus network that McCrory said he and other officials made sure was just as clean, safe and evenly marketed as the light-rail system, LYNX, which became operational in late 2007.
And he believes a transit system in metro Atlanta would work.
“If you do it right,” McCrory said. “You can learn lessons from yours and other people’s mistakes and also from what was done right. It’s a process of many steps, just as building roads is a process. Many roads are built correctly and many are built incorrectly. But if you get roads and transit working together, it’s a good investment.”
McCrory would not say whether the availability of a transit system was the “nail in the coffin” for many businesses to locate to or stay in Charlotte, but he did say it became a major recruitment tool.
“We could use it to show that we were doing something in anticipation of growth,” McCrory said. “If you wait to react to growth when it happens, you’ve waited too long. But I never apply one thing to jobs and companies coming or going. Transit was just a part of the package, but a very important part. When we competed against cities such as Jacksonville, Houston, L.A. for industry, I would bring out our transit plan. Even for companies that weren’t looking to locate near the transit line, I would still show them the plan, and they would say: ‘We like this a lot even though we wouldn’t be on the transit line because we see you’re planning for the future.’ It helps as a recruitment tool, I can guarantee you that.”
McCrory likened the battle to get public support for a light rail system to a business trying to sell a product, and said that if Atlanta does nothing, competitors such as Charlotte and Phoenix will begin to win jobs and companies.
When asked what he felt Charlotte would look like today had the transit system not been built, McCrory said: “We’d have some corridors that would be much more blighted, and we wouldn’t have a choice but to do something.”
Steve Banta, Phoenix METRO Light Rail CEO, said the Arizona transit system began with a highly used bus route taking people from the east side to the downtown center. Once the light rail system was in place by 2008 after 12 years of development and construction, it connected four of the five major employment centers.
Since the Phoenix area began plans for the system in 1998, Banta said $6.9 billion has been invested in the development along the alignment. Banta said the system, like Charlotte, has partnered with stakeholders in the area to invest money into the system for upkeep and repairs along the rail corridor.
“They want that ride to be comfortable and reliable and can help offset some of those costs that you will have year after year,” Banta said.
Banta said 15 percent of Phoenix’s event attendees ride light rail, and the rail system has a deal with U.S. Airways Center that if a resident buys a ticket to an event at the center, the ticket also acts as a free pass on METRO. A percentage of the gate sales at the center is then turned over to METRO. Banta also said 20 percent of its daily riders are Arizona State University students, faculty and staff. Students are able to use their student IDs as transit passes, and ASU will subsidize students’ fare pass and reimburse METRO for the trips, Banta said.
The airport is also an important connector for the Phoenix rail line, as Banta said there are 1,000 people a day using the transit system to get to the airport.
Since 2005, when METRO officials reached an agreement with the Federal Transit Administration to build the 20 miles of rail lines, Banta said 16,500 new residential units have popped up along the rail corridor, along with a $900 million mixed-use project called CityScape and 250,000 square feet in retail and restaurant space. And in Tempe, one million square feet of office space has been built on a 17-acre site called Tempe Town Lake.
Other economic development that has occurred in the railway’s corridors are the Translational Genomics Research Institute, which opened in 2005; a Sheraton hotel, which opened in 2008 and the Phoenix Convention Center, which also opened in 2008.
The system cost $1.4 billion and there are plans for 37 more miles of expansion. Banta said Phoenix was going to “build our way out of the economy,” and added that for every $1 billion invested in the system, an average of 36,000 jobs are created or supported. And for every $1 invested, $4 is generated in economic returns, Banta said.
“Even in this economy, we have to continue to build, and you have to focus on a total transit network — not just rail lines,” Banta said.