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Regional Roundup

These news items appeared in Community sections of The Charlotte Observer:

Summit scrutinizes effects of growth

Balancing expected economic growth against the resulting transportation needs in the face of dwindling funds was among the challenges discussed at a recent summit on transportation improvements.

The Sept. 30 summit was titled “Transportation and Land Use: Impacts of Growth on the Lake Norman Region.”

It brought nearly 200 elected officials, economic leaders, property owners and interested residents from at least four counties together at the Charles Mack Citizen Center in Mooresville.

Hosted by the Lake Norman Transportation Commission, the second annual event covered the history of growth in the area, projections for future growth, and ways to plan to meet current and future transportation needs with fewer state and federal dollars.

Jeff Michael, director of UNC Charlotte’s Urban Institute, said that as a resident of Davidson, he can empathize with wanting relief from traffic congestion.

Future economic growth, however, is not only necessary for a diversified tax base, he said, but is practically inevitable when looking at population trends and data.

Michael said transportation planning and capital project choices can help an area become competitive and attract growth.

But the ability to keep up with increasing population and to plan for ever-growing transportation demands can be a never-ending cycle, he said.

During his keynote speech, Tony Tata, state transportation secretary, echoed the need to relieve congestion in the area.

Tata spoke about Gov. Pat McCrory’s recently released 25-year vision plan, which aims to address regionally specific transportation challenges that have been identified statewide.

While the congestion around Lake Norman isn’t unique to the area, Tata said the region is among the most congested areas in the state.

“There’s the need for serious discussion about revenue reform,” he said, noting that $70 billion worth of transportation projects are seeking state funding, but only about $1.5 billion in state money is available for capital projects annually.

“We’ve got to look for different ways to fund projects,” and that’s part of what the 25-year transportation plan will work toward, Tata said.

N.C. Rep. Bill Brawley, R-Mecklenburg, was part of a panel discussion about alternative ways to fund transportation projects.

The state maintains one of the largest road networks in the country, but “we’ve been underfunded for some time,” Brawley said.

The state gasoline tax is providing less revenue because of such factors as higher vehicle gas mileage, and federal funding is becoming more uncertain.

Brawley called the Interstate 77 public-private partnership toll lanes “an experiment” that could help provide more funding for road improvements, even if it means charging user fees.

“I realize I’m painting a pretty bleak picture,” Brawley said. “I tell people the truth when they don’t want to hear it and I don’t want to say it.”

But public-private partnerships bring more money, allowing more roads to be built, he said. Managed lanes are likely in the future for his House District 103 as well, he said.

“It’s the least bad news, and the least bad answer I’ve got,” Brawley said.

Panelist David Tyeryar, chief financial officer for the N.C. Department of Transportation, said the future of transportation is in some combination of public and private money.

“Everyone pays for a safety net that’s out there,” he said, regardless of whether they ever call 911. “Whether you have kids in schools, (we all) pay for the education system.”

“It’s something we come to expect as a community and a state,” Tyeryar said. Hilary Trenda

U.S. 29 bridges to close for replacement work

Cabarrus County and University City-area motorists who travel south on North Tryon Street/U.S. 29 will be rerouted later this month, when the state begins replacing a pair of bridges over Mallard Creek.

The nearly $4.4 million bridge-replacement project is in the heavily traveled stretch of the divided four-lane highway between W.T. Harris Boulevard and Mallard Creek Church Road.

Many Cabarrus residents use that stretch on their daily commutes, for shopping or for access to Carolinas Medical Center–University and nearby physicians’ offices.

Work will begin Oct. 15, weather permitting, and is expected to last through May, according to the N.C. Department of Transportation.

Once the southbound bridge replacement is complete, it will accommodate traffic in both directions while the northbound bridge is closed and replaced, said N.C. DOT’s Ron Graham, the project’s resident engineer.

The project will widen each bridge to add sidewalks on both the northbound and southbound bridges, Graham said. The construction contract, funded at least in part by federal funds, has been awarded to Michigan-based DeVere Construction Co., he said.

During the closure, southbound traffic will have two detour options, Graham said. Drivers can take Mallard Creek Church Road to Interstate 85 and then back onto W.T. Harris Boulevard; or, later in the project, they can take I-485 to I-85 and W.T. Harris, once the final portion of I-485 opens later this year, Graham said.

Only one Charlotte Area Transit System bus route will be affected by the southbound closure, the No. 11-U route, said Krystel Green, CATS public and community relations manager.

The detour is not expected to lengthen ride times significantly or alter the route’s schedule, she said.

“We thank (everyone) for their patience,” Green said, “and (we will) do our best to minimize the impact.”

Green also said the bridge replacement is independent of work on the Lynx Blue Line Extension. “One doesn’t have anything to do with the other,” she said.

The Mallard Creek Greenway, which runs beneath the bridges, also will be rerouted during construction, Graham said. The detour will be marked with signs. Hilary Trenda

Hickory seeks funding to spur revitalization

Hickory officials are moving ahead with a long-term plan to spur revitalization at the southern end of the city, seeking hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal grant money to repurpose properties that pose environmental challenges.

The $200,000 grant would go toward the cleanup and redevelopment of a section of the U.S. 70 corridor between U.S. 321 and South Center Street. Despite the presence of tainted sites, known as brownfields, it is seen by elected officials and planners as fertile ground for renewal.

“That’s an area where there’s going to be some growth and opportunities for new development,” said Dave Leonetti, the city’s community development manager. He cited a planned grocery store on U.S. 70 and the redevelopment a few years ago of another property that now includes a gas station and car wash.

The city applied for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grant late last month. It requires no matching funds, and the agency could announce the recipients as soon as early next year.

The city also received $800,000 from the agency from 2006 to 2012 for environmental assessments, Leonetti said.

But this is the first comprehensive redevelopment plan that could involve changes to land-use policies and infrastructure improvements. The area is among a handful the city has designated for future redevelopment.

Brownfields are abandoned or underused industrial or commercial sites where environmental contamination, such as hazardous waste or petroleum, is proven or suspected. As a result, the properties languish, with banks wary of making loans to developers for fear of legal action by the state.

North Carolina has sought a way around such obstacles, negotiating contracts with developers using a brownfields program meant to clarify and limit their liabilities and thus encourage investment.

While they must meet requirements particular to a given property, including any necessary environmental remediation, developers are not subject to cleanup standards set by the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Those responsible for contamination have to clean it up, and they are not eligible for the program.

In the years since the program was created in the late 1990s, nearly 320 brownfield sites have undergone redevelopment, said Bruce Nicholson, director of the program, which is administered by the N.C. Division of Waste Management. More than one-fourth are in rural areas, he said, whose furniture factories and textile mills once helped drive the state’s economy.

“Their liability is no longer uncertain,” Nicholson said of developers, adding that the program has since helped generate some $10 billion in private investment that has started resurrecting what he described as a graveyard of brownfields across the state.

In Hickory, officials have identified about 130 such sites, including nearly 10 in the area the city is planning to redevelop. Jake Flannick

Mint Hill-area school boards seek charter approval

There’s an old saying: “The third time’s the charm.”

The boards of Queens Grant High School, a charter high school, and Matthews Mint Hill Charter Academy hope that saying holds true.

For the third year in a row, both boards have submitted applications with the state to obtain a charter.

The first year, both charters were denied because of incomplete applications. Last year, both boards made it to the interview process, but both were denied again.

Now both boards are repeating the process.

In the case of Queens Grant High School, which has operated under the charter of Queens Grant Community School since it opened in fall 2007, a separate charter would simplify paperwork and bookkeeping.

“Queens Grant Community School is run by National Heritage Academies, which specializes in K-8 schools. Because of the demand of parents wanting a charter high school, the board sought to increase Queens Grant Community School to K-12, but National Heritage did not want to venture into high schools,” said Queens Grant Board Chairman and Mint Hill Mayor Ted Biggers.

“We were able to use the same charter, but National Heritage runs the K-8 school and the board runs the high school. In reality it’s like two separate operations, but the state recognizes us as a single entity.

“The way it is now, we have to run all our numbers, reports and financials as one school.”

Queens Grant High Principal Michael Smith said it would make little difference in day-to-day operations whether the separate charter is granted.

“As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t really matter,” Smith said. “If we get the charter or not, we will still be here day in and day out doing what we do.”

If a separate charter is granted, it would mean students from Queens Grant Community School would not automatically feed into Queens Grant High; they would have to go through a lottery process like other students. Biggers said, however, that he believes the school is large enough to accommodate all applicants.

Matthews Mint Hill Community Charter Academy is still on the drawing board, and the board needs a charter to finalize plans and open the kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school.

Board Chairman Ed Sieber said they plan to draw students from the 800-plus waiting list for Queens Grant Community School. The new charter school would be structured similar to Queens Grant and also would be run by National Heritage Academies.

The board has not picked a site yet; site selection will come after a charter is awarded. But Sieber says the new school would be in the Matthews-Mint Hill area.

“There’s a strong need for another charter school in this area. Queens Grant is doing really well and has a long waitlist, and I think the public would support another charter school coming to the area,” Sieber said.

Charter school applications were due to the state by Sept. 26, and there will be several levels of review before interviews are granted in March.

If the boards are invited back for interviews, they still will have to wait until September 2015 to find out whether they will receive a charter. Melinda Johnston

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