The City of Charlotte needs more money for a promised 26-mile pedestrian and bicycle trail from Pineville to UNC Charlotte – approximately $77 million more.
City staff announced last week the $38 million originally estimated for the Cross Charlotte Trail is not nearly enough to finish the project. The money – approved through bonds passed in 2014, 2016 and 2018 – will only pay for 18 miles of continuous trail, supplemented by eight miles of street improvements like signs, bike lanes and sidewalks.
The news left several council members “frustrated,” “flabbergasted” and unsure of whether to halt the project until all the funding is available, or proceed with the scaled-back version.
“This kind of arrives out of nowhere after we’ve already sunk $38 million and I’m just uncomfortable,” said council member Ed Driggs. “I kind of feel like I’m a party to a misrepresentation to the taxpayers.”
“It is a dilemma for us,” Mayor Vi Lyles said.
But for local bicycle and greenway advocacy groups, the answer is clear:
“Doing nothing is not an option, the voters have already voted and approved the bonds. They’ve voted and said we want this trail built,” said Ed Barnhart, president of Greenways for Mecklenburg.
The nonprofit advocates for the accelerated completion of the greenway system in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. Part of the Cross Charlotte Trail includes a 0.7-mile connection between Little Sugar Creek and McMullen Creek greenways in the Pineville-Ballantyne area, behind Carolina Place Mall. That portion, called the South Charlotte Connector, will cost $2.3 million and is fully funded with the city’s bond money.
City council was supposed to award a construction contract for the South Charlotte Connector on Jan. 14, but decided to delay until a decision is made about the Cross Charlotte Trail’s future.
Barnhart has been personally pushing for greenways for the past 20 years and said he’s seen the cost to build them rise significantly.
“The longer we wait to do this, the more expensive it’s going to be,” he said.
Kate Cavazza, bicycle program manager for Sustain Charlotte, was at the Jan. 7 meeting when city staff dropped the bomb about the trail’s major funding gap. Cavazza said she didn’t think the $38 million price tag was too low, however, she wasn’t surprised when it turned out to be higher.
“I assumed the consultants had done their due diligence,” Cavazza said. “But the numbers they were working with were pretty old.”
Both City Manager Marcus Jones and Liz Babson, director of the Charlotte Department of Transportation, admitted the city’s estimation for the Cross Charlotte Trail was off.
The city had based its numbers off what Mecklenburg County spent per mile on their greenways and trails, but the cost grew as planning progressed and numbers became more defined.
“If you extrapolate that and put it toward the city, there’s a bit of a flaw there because much of the section we’re talking about tonight, it’s not so easy to replicate that when you have clear open space versus what we’re trying to do,” Jones said.
In addition to the South Charlotte Connector, the bond money can also cover another important link in the existing greenway and trail system.
The project would build 1.5 miles of trail from Tyvola Road to where Brandywine Road meets the Park Road Shopping Center, connecting 18 miles of continuous trail. It will cost an estimated $17 million, due to the topography and the need for retaining walls, “boardwalks” and low water crossings.
“This is the hardest section of Cross Charlotte Trail to build,” said Mike Davis, a Charlotte engineer.
City staff is hoping to award a construction contract sometime this spring.
The last piece would fill a missing gap in the Little Sugar Creek Greenway between 7th and 10th streets. Staff expects to award a construction contract in spring 2020.
After those three projects, the $38 million is gone. Davis said there won’t be enough to cover the northeast portion of the trail that heads from uptown toward UNCC as originally envisioned. However, he said, there is still a way to keep the city’s promise of a 26-mile Cross Charlotte Trail.
Davis suggests creating an interim trail alignment composed of a network of local streets with existing or planned sidewalks, bike lanes and signs designating the streets as part of the Cross Charlotte Tail and directing people to the next part.
Over time, he said, the city would look to bring that portion permanently online through redevelopment and other funding opportunities. The hope is that developers would be convinced, or required, to build the unfunded portions of the Cross Charlotte Trail piecemeal as they redevelop land leading along the planned route to University City.
Council member Braxton Winston didn’t like that plan. He suggested city staff and council brainstorm creative funding for the entire project, like using tourism dollars, instead of waiting for developers to build the remaining parts of the trail.
“We can’t keep piecing this together,” Winston said. “I don’t think this should be brought up to us unless we have a plan for the full trail and come up with something creative to figure this out because it seems like we got ourselves into a real sticky situation.”
Sustain Charlotte – a nonprofit that works with neighborhoods, government agencies, businesses and other groups to advance a region-wide sustainability movement – sees the Cross Charlotte Trail as a huge amenity, not just for recreation, but also transportation across the city.
Cavazza said her group wants council to move forward with the South Charlotte Connector, Tyvola to Brandywine segment and the link between 7th and 10th streets, or risk missing project deadlines and creating future budget concerns. Plus, any delays will only cost taxpayers money as construction bids expire and need to be re-advertised, she said.
“The bond money is going to give us 18 miles of continuous track, so why not do it?” Cavazza asked. “As for the temporary section in the northeast, I think any interim solution is better than what we have.”
In the meantime, she said, the city could solicit donations and corporate sponsorship for the rest, require help from private development, ask for the money on a future bond referendum or use tourism dollars like Winston suggested.
“That $77 million is initially startling, but once you actually think about it, it’s a solvable problem,” Cavazza said.
Local businesses and big corporations that call the Queen City home should be stepping up, too, Barnhart said. Their contributions could help bring the interim trail alignment permanently online so cyclists and pedestrians won’t have to settle for a half-done project.
“It’s certainly not as good as what the Cross Charlotte Trail plan is. I think all of us would like to see the Cross Charlotte Trail completed in its conceptual design,” Barnhart said. “The truth is, we need to build this and find a way to fund it. Wayfinding is a short term solution until we can find a better solution.”