A new direction forward for transportation in east Charlotte.

Overbudget and long-running road construction projects are common fodder for political cartoonists and water cooler banter. For decades, Charlotte’s East Independence Boulevard has been a premier example of such a project.

Members of the Independence Boulevard Task
Force discuss the future of the street in August 2011.

In the 1980s, the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) began converting Independence Boulevard, a part of U.S. Route 74, from a commercial arterial into a limited-access highway. The work to date, performed in three phases, totals 4.25 miles (6.9 km) and has cost over $80 million. Most problematic for landowners, businesses, and residents, the three segments of rebuilt road each involve different systems for accessing properties adjacent to the roadway, with two of the segments allowing direct access and the third segment allowing access only by limited entrance and exit ramps. NCDOT has begun obtaining properties for a fourth segment, 1.6 miles (2.6 km) in length, which is expected to cost $172 million, with more than $90 million going toward property acquisition.

When Anthony Foxx was elected Charlotte mayor in 2009, he called a meeting on his first day in office to discuss this extraordinarily expensive and time-consuming state road project of questionable value to the surrounding community. When Foxx was selected as a ULI Daniel Rose fellow in 2010, he asked the team to focus on the Independence corridor as its land use challenge for the year. Foxx, city planning director Debra Campbell, city transportation director Danny Pleasant, and NCDOT secretary Gene Conti spent a year working with ULI member experts to untangle the various challenges posed by this corridor.

Part of the challenge of Independence Boulevard is interjurisdictional. In 2006, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) called for bus rapid transit (BRT) service along Independence as part of the 2030 Corridor System Plan, which lays out public transit plans and policy for the entire Charlotte region. This plan included direction that Charlotte city staff should “coordinate the design of the highway improvements to protect the possible construction of bus rapid or light rail transit” in the center lanes of Independence Boulevard. These separate transit lanes, in addition to high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes and three general-purpose lanes in each direction, if put in place, would yield a street width ranging from 250 to 280 feet (76 to 85 m).

When land development along Independence Boulevard proceeded rapidly in the 1950s and 1960s, the large number of commuters generated demand for cultural facilities, shopping centers, and copious strip retail development along the roadway. Over time, property disinvestment along Independence caused by uncertainty about timing and funding for the road construction, means of access to adjacent properties, and the depth of property that might be needed to accommodate transit has colored real estate investment decisions along the corridor. Meanwhile, the surrounding east Charlotte neighborhoods suffered from physical decline and diminished access to goods and services.

As part of Charlotte’s participation in the ULI Daniel Rose Fellowship, Foxx hosted a team of ULI member experts to examine the Independence Boulevard project further. The ULI Rose Center team, chaired by Carlton Brown, chief operating officer of Full Spectrum Properties, and Hilary Bertsch, associate principal of EE&K, a Perkins Eastman Company, made several key recommendations to help the city implement its land use plan along Independence.

Zimbabwe_2_351First, the ULI Rose Center team recommended that rail transit service, when it is funded, should run elsewhere in the plan area rather than hold up the planning, design, and construction of Independence Boulevard with its funding uncertainty. Also, a streetcar running on a parallel street would better support mixed-use, neighborhood-serving commercial development than transit running in the center of a highway median. The ULI Rose Center team also recommended that the city operate BRT or express bus service in lanes shared with the HOV traffic rather than dedicate another pair of lanes in the already-wide street.

In summer 2011, Foxx and the Charlotte team convened a stakeholder task force to follow up on the ULI Rose Center recommendations. The group recommended that Foxx ask the MTC to change its plans, striking the provision in the 2030 Corridor System Plan calling for separate transit lanes in the reconstruction of Independence. ULI Charlotte was a member of this task force and will carry forward ULI’s recommendations with the city.

See the ULI Rose Center for Public Leadership in Land Use and the Daniel Rose Fellowship program for more information on its mission and its fellows, and see, “Charlotte’s Rose Center Land Use Challenge Offers Lessons about Transit” for more detail on the ULI Rose Center team’s recommendations for Independence Boulevard.

Charlotte, North Carolina is the host city for the ULI 2012 Spring Meeting to be held May 8-10, 2012. Register now.