Charlotte has a transportation problem, one that is riddled with racial justice issues.
Why did the city decide to move the uptown Transit Center underground?
The easy answer is money.
By moving the bus terminal below ground, the city can sell the land above the terminal to a private developer. Current plans call for a mixed-use tower on the site, plus a new practice facility for the Charlotte Hornets.
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Still, that reasoning should raise some concerns.
First, we are not starved for tax dollars. Our state has a $3 billion tax surplus, and our city just completed a property revaluation. As we know, rising home values and gentrification will certainly bring in a lot of revenue for city government.
Yes, the city will make a lot of money selling the surface land above the underground terminal. But is this going to make riding the bus more attractive?
Charlotte-Mecklenburg is projected to add 500,000 to 700,000 new residents in the next 20 years, and our roads cannot be widened enough to accommodate all the cars that will come with that many new people. We should be making public transit more attractive, not shoving it underground.
There is also a racial justice issue here.
The public recently learned that the city is not on track to replace all its diesel buses with electric buses by the year 2030 — a goal adopted in 2018 under Charlotte’s Strategic Energy Action Plan. What’s more, City Council recently voted to buy 12 more buses that are hybrid diesel.
That means the new transit center will bring diesel-burning buses underground, forcing riders – predominately Black and brown commuters – to breathe harmful fumes while they wait.
There are complicated reasons why the city cannot convert its fleet quickly, yet the fact remains that with more than 300 buses in the city’s fleet, it will take many years to replace all those diesel-burning buses with clean, electric buses. And we know that the life span of a bus is about 12 years.
With the underground terminal slated to open in 2028, Black and brown riders will be breathing diesel fumes for years thereafter – out of sight and out of mind.
When we look at the rates of asthma, COPD and other respiratory illnesses in our city, we note that residents who live within the “crescent,” which stretches from east Charlotte to west Charlotte, have a much higher incidence of these chronic illnesses.
These are illnesses that cause children to miss school days, workers to miss paydays, and generally set folks back in their access to economic opportunity. Where is the racial equity effort in our transportation planning?
With these recent decisions, Charlotte will continue to put Black and brown people in places with unhealthy air. And, instead of making public transportation more accessible and inviting, we plan to hide it underground – all in the name of making money from land that can be sold to the highest bidder.
There is still time for new decisions that will make the underground transit center attractive and healthy. But that will likely not be on the cheap. Voters (and debate moderators) will have the chance to make this an issue in the upcoming 2023 city elections – and we can hope to hear some good answers to the questions being raised.