News & OpinionOpinion

OPINION: Don’t Bury the City’s Public Transportation

Charlotte has a transportation problem, one that is riddled with racial justice issues

A police officer prepares to board a bus to do a security check on a bus in a massive public transportation facility.
The city is moving forward with a plan to replace the existing Charlotte Transportation Center with an underground facility. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

The onset of COVID — and the short-term reduction in traffic that it brought — delayed the realization for a couple of years that we cannot accommodate all the cars that our growing population brings. We are projected to grow by 500,000-700,000 new residents in the next 20 years, and our roads cannot be widened enough to accommodate all the cars that will come with them.

With that in mind, we should be making transit and public transportation more accessible and enticing for riders, correct? We should make parking harder and public transportation better. We should be updating our fleet with attractive, clean, all-electric buses that will glide through our neighborhoods and offer commuters and shoppers quiet, clean, emission-free alternatives to driving.

So why is the city moving forward with building an underground bus terminal to replace the existing Charlotte Transportation Center (CTC) on East 4th Street? I know the answer: money. It is, after all, a plan that will make room for a $275-million development set to go right above it.

But there is a lot of skepticism from the community about the reasoning. Could there be more sinister reasons that we want to move buses underground?

Could it be the logical extension of locating the CTC in the first place, which moved “those people” off of Tryon Street and away from all the corporate Uptown workers who just want to walk to lunch without interacting with Black and brown bus riders? Now we want to, once again, move “those people” out of sight — literally — by burying them underground.

Yes, the city will gain a lot by developing a new Spectrum Center expansion where the current CTC is, but is this going to make riding the bus, and using public transportation to reduce congestion and air pollution, more attractive? Please note that I am just asking questions, not blaming any one person or entity for the multiple decisions that have led us here.

There is another justice issue here as well, one that I know not many are thinking about based on several conversations I have had. The public has recently learned that the city is not on track to replace all its buses with electric buses by the year 2030 — the goal originally voted on in 2018 for its Strategic Energy Action Plan.

Charlotte City Council voted recently to purchase 12 more hybrid-diesel buses. The new transit center thus will bring diesel-fuel burning buses underground with all those bus riders. These citizens will be in an enclosed space, breathing harmful diesel fumes, while they wait for their bus.   

There are complicated reasons that the city is unable to convert its fleet quickly enough, but suffice to say that is where we are now. The fact remains that, with over 300 buses in the city’s fleet, it will take many years to replace all the diesel-burning buses with clean electric buses.

We know that the life span of a bus is about 12 years, so many diesel-burning buses will be around until 2035 and longer, with the new underground shelter slated to open sometime in 2028. That amounts to years of Black and brown bus riders breathing diesel fumes in an underground bus shelter, where they are out of sight and out of mind.

When you look at the rates of asthma and COPD and other respiratory illnesses in our city, you will note that “the Crescent” of east and west Charlotte has a much higher incidence of these chronic illnesses. These are illnesses that cause children to miss school days, workers to miss pay days, and generally set folks back in their access to economic opportunity. Where is the racial equity effort in our transportation planning? I have been unable to uncover it.

The gist of the matter is that with these recent decisions, we are going to 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 indeed make the underground transit center attractive and healthy, but that will likely not be 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.

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