Charlotte Transit Has Problems That Expensive Fantasy Maps Won’t Fix

Consultants draw up plans that stand to benefit consultants -- their incentives don't necessarily align with the public interest.

Even though they weren't asked for it, consultant Kimley-Horn drew a fantasy map that would involve new projects designed and built by firms like Kimley-Horn. Image via CATS
Even though they weren't asked for it, consultant Kimley-Horn drew a fantasy map that would involve new projects designed and built by firms like Kimley-Horn. Image via CATS

Kimley-Horn, a multinational consulting firm looking to plan the next phases of the Charlotte area’s rail expansion, also has ideas for new rail lines above and beyond the region’s long-term blueprint — projects that would be designed and built, naturally, by multinational consulting firms like Kimley-Horn. Trouble is, the firm’s fantasy exercise does nothing to address the real challenges facing Charlotte’s transit network.

Earlier this year, the Charlotte Area Transit System issued an RFP looking for consulting firms to help it figure out three big challenges: how to bring rail service north to Lake Norman, how to bring rail west to the airport, and how to knit together the growing rail system downtown [PDF].

In addition to submitting bids answering those questions, one consultant graciously offered ideas for how the transit agency could send more money its way. Steve Harrison at the Charlotte Observer reports:

One firm, Kimley-Horn, also suggested that it study future transit corridors that could be built after the initial $6 billion in new rail lines are built.

Kimley-Horn suggested CATS consider reserving right-of-way for extending the Blue Line to Ballantyne; building a new rail line to SouthPark; and extending a commuter rail line to east Charlotte. Those lines could be part of a 2070 plan, the consultant said.

“There are still areas of the city that are developing outside of the defined growth corridors,” Kinmley-Horn said in its presentation. “The SouthPark area is a prime example. SouthPark has seen rapid expansion and development as a retail, office and residential center. This could very well be a center that the city will want to connect to Center City with rail transit.”

Charlotte transit advocates are skeptical. “We need to be building transit to the west and to the north first, per the plan we’ve had for over a decade,” said Shannon Binns, executive director of Sustain Charlotte. “It did strike me as a little bit odd that consultants were suggesting lines that weren’t even part of this RFP.”

In addition to Kimley-Horn, mega-consultants WSP/Parsons Brinckerhoff, HNTB, and STV submitted proposals to CATS, the Observer reports. All four have done previous work in Charlotte.

Binns said transportation projects in Charlotte, like in many places, are heavily reliant on consultants, and their incentives don’t necessarily align with the public interest. “If they are the ones creating the plan, and they make the plan ambitious and expensive enough, they stand to make more money down the road when they build it,” Binns said. “It makes me think that there should be a policy that says the consultant that creates this plan should not be eligible to bid on contracts to design and build it.”

Proposing mega-projects is a fun exercise, but Charlotte has more pressing transit challenges than paying Kimley-Horn to develop a fantasy map for the year 2070.

New buildings along the Blue Line light rail still include lots of parking, according to an analysis by Charlotte Observer real estate reporter Ely Portillo, even though the city has reformed parking requirements to encourage transit-oriented development.

“The idea of not building parking, even next to a transit line, that has not become accepted yet in Charlotte,” Binns said. “We have such an auto-centric culture here, and our pattern has been so sprawling for so many decades.”

So it’s not surprising that the transit system has seen its ridership drop, both on bus and rail. In response, CATS chief executive John Lewis has launched the “Envision My Ride” plan to redesign Charlotte’s bus network.

“The bus network here doesn’t really work for most people,” Binns said. “Every trip requires you to go through downtown. There are no crosstown routes.” Binns hopes Lewis will move quickly to revamp and even expand Charlotte’s bus service.

The group is also working to identify the 10 least walkable bus stops in Charlotte, and advocating for funding to improve nearby sidewalks and crossings.

That’s something Kimley-Horn’s fantasy map just won’t fix.

  • The Overhead Wire

    I know people want to focus on bus networks, but rail transit networks are also useful. There need to be HCT connections between major employment centers and Charlotte has shown that lines can be successful. Additionally, after the vote in 1998 to expand bus service and build light rail, ridership increased 100%. There’s missing history and more context here that needs to be discussed.

    I like the idea of disqualifying any companies from bidding on future projects they devise. But connecting employment centers like Ballantyne and Southpark to the network would be beneficial. It just needs to be done intelligently. The thing that annoys me is that if this is 2070, we’re screwed. By that time Charlotte will spend probably quadruple the amount spent on transit on roads. That’s the real problem.

  • Ray

    Properly price the roads, and people will be more inclined to use commuter buses. Right now roads are under-priced, and this screws the success of any van/shuttle/bus service.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Kimley-Horn suggested CATS consider reserving right-of-way.”

    There is nothing wrong with reserving right of way while the land is cheap, provided it does not prevent you from meeting immediate needs.

    I’ll bet road builders have plenty of fantasies, but they don’t need them. Highways are built to connect metros, and then suburbanization turns them into local roads that need to be expanded.

  • Southeasterner

    “they [consultants] stand to make more money down the road when they build it”

    Aside from STV the consultants listed are in the area of planning and design and wouldn’t build it. Firms like Skanska, Webcor, Turner, and Walsh would be more likely to be the ones actually building out the system.

    I would applaud the consultants as they are the ones who actively push for transit expansion both with the agencies and politicians. When people see what they could have if they back transit, typically through maps, they often react much more favorably to transit investments when they appear in a ballot or a campaign pledge (Trump’s $1 trillion invest in infrastructure promise still resonates with quite a few people in the industry and probably swung Ohio).

    If an agency doesn’t want ideas and thoughts outside of their entrenched internal opinions than just leave it out of the scope of work.

  • bolwerk

    Calling at-grade light rail a mega-project really stretches the term.

  • bolwerk

    I think consultants are a mixed bag, and there are many bad ones, but Streetsblog seems to post articles and PR by/for consultants at least somewhat regularly. Here are some from Walter Hook (link link link (bonus: Walter Hook’s consultancy).

    Jarrett Walker and Gridlock Sam also come to mind as consultants frequently cited or spoken to across Streetsblog sites.

  • Fred Grady

    What this article fails to mention is the fact that the RFP released by CATS required consultants to toss out ideas for the future of transit in Charlotte. The consultants didn’t just come up with these ideas to create future work for themselves – your angle for this story was way off. The engineers and planners who work for these firms live, work, and play in Charlotte too. They care deeply for the area, contribute tax dollars here, and simply want Charlotte to be successful. This article makes Kimley-Horn seem like a large, heartless, money-hungry corporation, which it is not.

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