Outside the lines: a conversation on mobility throughout the Charlotte region
Brittany Clampitt
Charlotte Moves Task Force up town

On Thursday, Aug. 20, the Charlotte Moves Task Force held its fourth meeting and continued its work to create a plan for investing in mobility in Charlotte. Members discussed the importance of a regional mindset when improving transit and transportation options in Charlotte and beyond.

Geraldine Gardner, executive director of the Centralina Regional Council, provided the task force with an update on CONNECT Beyond, the regional mobility planning initiative her organization is leading. Through CONNECT Beyond and alongside area partners, including the City of Charlotte, Centralina is working to create a cohesive vision and plan for moving people through the Charlotte region via public transportation.

This work is in line with emerging priorities of the Charlotte Moves Task Force and the Charlotte Future 2040 Comprehensive Plan for growth over the next 20 years. These priorities include building a sustainable, prosperous and innovative city that connects people within the city and across the region.

Ahead of her presentation to the task force, we sat down with Gardner, Centralina's regional planning director Michelle Nance, and principal planner and CONNECT Beyond project manager Jason Wager, for a conversation about the project and its ties to the Charlotte Moves effort.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What is the CONNECT Beyond initiative?

Gardner: CONNECT Beyond is a two-state, 12-county initiative we are leading with several partners across the region to create a cohesive mobility vision for our region, specifically on how to move and connect people via public transportation.

The name, CONNECT Beyond, is tied to CONNECT Our Future, a multi-year, intense engagement process Centralina completed to define how our region was going to grow and thrive over the next 20-plus years. Through that process, mobility and transportation emerged as key themes. CONNECT Beyond is really taking up that thread and trying to build a big, bold vision, for how our region can move.

What should the task force members and the public take away from your presentation and CONNECT Beyond?

Gardner: Our region is in a fierce competition for talent and resources. We're competing, not just against other regions in our state, but in the southeastern United States, across the country and even globally. If you look at the DNA that makes up a thriving region, transportation is one of those foundational pieces. We need to do a better job at putting in the foundational infrastructure that's going to ensure our region can compete into the future and provide the types of connectivity and access the people in our region demand now.

Our initiative is going to really think about the transit experience for the everyday rider. How can it be more convenient? How can it be safer? How can it be integrated? If you live in Gaston County, but you want to go to school at a four-year university at [The University of North Carolina at Charlotte], for example, you can actually get there on transit. If you work in Statesville and you want to see a baseball game in Kannapolis, how could you get there without having to use your car?

We have a track record of building coalitions as an organization through CONNECT Our Future. We know we can think and act regionally. We've done it before. It's just about what that vision is, and our planning process is designed to work with our stakeholder groups and define that vision.

Nance: The region is big, and each community is different -- they range in size and are urban and suburban and rural. They have different transportation needs, but those needs can be compatible and they can coordinate. One of the key components of this project is the coordination across not only jurisdictions, but transportation systems.

Wager: Around the country, it's those projects and programs that are set up regionally, cross-jurisdictionally that appear to have the most success. Aligning the Charlotte Moves work with this work is just a natural fit.

Gardner: Implementation for me is absolutely critical. How are we planning for implementation of not just the big, light rail projects that are going to be time and cost intensive, but those quick wins? I've heard a lot in the Charlotte Moves presentations about multimodal connectivity, the first and last mile. It's going to be important throughout our region that we have bus shelters, and some sort of integrated, app-based system riders can use across all our transit agencies.

We don't just want to put a pie-in-the-sky plan out there. We want to have a mix of recommendations that are going to be implementable on the shorter timeframe.

Explain further how these two initiatives, CONNECT Beyond and Charlotte Moves, can inform each other.

Gardner: Charlotte is in the CONNECT Beyond project area. We're partnering with CATS. We're building off of the 2030 Transit Plan. So, we're layering the cake and expanding the boundaries beyond the traditional CATS service area.

Certainly, the social and economic equity questions, or opportunities that come with expanding transportation choices and access, are fundamental to the work that we do, and of course, the environmental components. There's a lot of similar DNA when it comes to why we are doing this work.

The tools we have are complimentary. Some task force presentations have touched on transportation demand management or TDM. [TDM includes strategies or systems that promote transportation systems and get cars off the road]. That's part of our study as well. Sixty percent of our workforce lives in a different county than they work. County-by-county TDM doesn't make sense if you have people moving across the region. We want to make it as easy as possible for those workers to get where they want to go and for those companies to know there's a reliable TDM program they can utilize.

What are some opportunities for collaboration between Charlotte Moves and CONNECT Beyond?

Gardner: One of the great opportunities that was immediately clear after the first task force meeting was to link up the [Charlotte Moves] Task Force group with the [CONNECT Beyond] community advisory committee.

Obviously, I'm on the task force. Janet LaBar from the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance is on our policy committee. Her business perspective is absolutely critical. [Reggie Henderson, vice president of government relations for Lowe's is also on the policy committee]. Having that synergy on the people side is really important.

A shared game plan for how we approach the resources needed to put these ideas into action is going to be critical. My sense is both the [Charlotte Moves] Task Force and our initiative are thinking about cultivating the partnerships to move these different ideas into implementation.

Wager: Just to dive even deeper, elected officials, those federal and state representatives and agencies, are going to be partners across both programs. They're going to need to be at the table. If we don't have those good relationships all the way up to the federal level, a lot of our work is going to be sitting on the shelf.

What should a Charlottean know about regional mobility? What about someone who lives in the region, but outside Charlotte?

Gardner: This initiative will hopefully unlock opportunities for [people who live in Charlotte] to connect to other destinations within the region. If we're only focused on connecting within Charlotte, you might lose that opportunity to connect to other destinations and the benefits of increased job opportunities, increased education opportunities, recreation opportunities. Providing that in a way that is not car-dependent gives them a choice, but then it also creates capacity for others who may not want to leave their cars.

Similarly, for people outside of Charlotte, being able to access, in the opposite way, the resources that are in Charlotte and Mecklenburg that they may not be able to get to if they're constantly having to be in their cars, and then connect to other destinations in the region. You know, Gaston and Lincoln, the amount of traffic flowing between those two counties is really important. Gastonia is a huge employment center and people who live in Lincoln County, right now, have to drive. So, how are we unlocking those opportunities for access within the region and then across the region?

Jason, you're a Charlottean, what are you looking forward to?

Wager: All of the stuff we're talking about is going to take resources. Going together, we're going to be able to get and ask for greater resources. Some of those near-term wins, they could be steps for the next one to five years that just make a difference in how you get on and off a bus. The small, incremental things can make a big difference in your day-to-day mobility experience.

Gardner: I would love to not drive on a rainy day and see anyone in our region standing at a bus stop, huddling under their umbrella, getting totally soaked. If we can solve that across our region, and that incremental change in that individual's daily transit experience, that's awesome. If we can have them buy one ticket on a smartphone and be able to cruise around to all different systems -- another amazing thing. It's that quality of transit, quality of life thing.

And Michelle, you live across the border...

Nance: I really like the concept of us working together as a region and getting more because of that. It's not only the financial resources, but we're competing for talent and resources and jobs, and the new economic landscape is, do you have a viable efficient transit system? That's the type of place where people and employers want to be. They want to be in places where they know that governments are working together and they invest in their future. Transit is a key way to do that and demonstrate that to the rest of the world.

Geraldine, how has your experience been sitting on the Charlotte Moves Task Force?

Gardner: I moved here about a year and a half ago, so for me, it's been a wonderful opportunity to connect with some extremely smart people who are passionate about their communities. I appreciate the diversity within the group and the ability to connect with people.

As we start to get more specific in our charge and get down to brass tacks, I'm very interested to see where the conversation is going to take us. We've been ramping up our knowledge as a group and now it's reaching that critical point of what do we do with this information and how do we make smart decisions? So I think it's been a great process so far.

Learn more about CONNECT Beyond, and register for updates at connect-beyond.com. Follow the @WeareCentralina on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Watch the full Aug. 20 Charlotte Moves Task Force meeting.

The next task force meeting will be Thursday, Sept. 17, from 6-8:30 p.m. Watch the virtual meeting on the city's Facebook and YouTube channels and leave a comment or question to be included in the meeting discussion.