CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- In Charlotte’s budget fight, perhaps the biggest sticking point has been a proposal to spend $119 million on a streetcar through uptown.
Critics say it makes no sense to spend so much property tax money on something that travels no faster than a bus.
Supporters say it will eventually spark an economic revival along Beatties Ford Road and Central Avenue, two corridors in need of a jolt.
On June 11, as part of a surprise 6-5 vote against the $926 million capital program, City Council member Michael Barnes said he voted no because of the streetcar. His concern: Property tax dollars will be used to pay for the streetcar’s operating expenses, and he’s worried spending money on the streetcar could jeopardize a light-rail extension to University City.
Since that vote, Barnes and other council members have proposed sacrificing the streetcar extension to lower the needed property tax increase, which was proposed at 8 percent.
The proposed streetcar is different from light-rail in that it operates in the street, stopping for red lights and traffic jams.
Though it’s similar to a bus, the city believes that people will be more likely to use it because its overhead wires and rails give it a sense of permanence. The idea is that people are more comfortable waiting for a train than a bus, certain that it will eventually come.
Other council members have pushed back against scrapping or delaying the project, saying their constituents are expecting the streetcar.
“People on Central Avenue would be up in arms if they don’t get it,” Democrat Patsy Kinsey said last week.
Kinsey, who voted for the budget on June 11, represents areas along the proposed streetcar route.
First phase in December
When Mecklenburg voters approved a half-cent sales tax for mass transit in the late 1990s, a streetcar wasn’t mentioned.
Then Charlotte Area Transit System chief executive Ron Tober added the project, saying streetcars in cities like Portland, Ore., had helped spark economic development. The city later took over the project when the transit system realized it wouldn’t have enough money to build it.
In early 2010, the city received a $25 million federal grant to build a 1.5-mile starter line from Presbyterian Hospital to the uptown transit center. The entire cost of the project is $37 million, with the city picking up the difference.
Construction is expected to begin in December. The city expects the streetcar to open in 2015 and will use the old green trolley vehicles that used to operate in South End. That portion isn’t in jeopardy, although some council members are concerned about the funding.
In March, when City Manager Curt Walton released his proposed capital program through 2020, he set aside the $119 million to extend the streetcar.
Under Walton’s plan, the line would continue from the transit center to Johnson C. Smith University along Trade Street through uptown. In the other direction, it also would extend slightly past the hospital.
Besides building the track and overhead wires for the extension, the city would buy seven new modern streetcars.
A consultant in 2009 had suggested different ways other than property tax to pay for construction, including a special taxing district along the line. Walton said in an email Tuesday that those options “were insufficient, difficult to administer and implement, and impediments to economic development.”
That left property taxes as the way to pay for operations. In contrast, most of the operating expenses for CATS light-rail and buses are paid for by the transit sales tax.
The streetcar faced little opposition during spring budget meetings, until the capital plan’s defeat this month.
Barnes said he voted against the budget because of the streetcar. The streetcar has also been criticized by Mayor Pro Tem Patrick Cannon and Claire Fallon, and Republican Warren Cooskey has long said the project makes no sense.
The Charlotte Chamber, which would probably lead a campaign to persuade voters to approve bonds if the capital program is approved, said its members are “divided” on the streetcar.
Streetcar vs. light rail
The streetcar is very different from the city’s light-rail line.
While the Lynx Blue Line operates in its own right-of-way, and doesn’t stop for traffic, the streetcar will run on city streets.
It will stop for red lights. It won’t be faster than a car alongside it.
The city, however, has argued that it will increase ridership because people prefer rail transit over buses. And they note that Central Avenue and Beatties Ford Road are some of CATS’ busiest bus routes, and that it’s more cost efficient to upgrade them with larger-capacity streetcars.
But the main reason for construction is that it will hopefully create jobs, proponents say. Just as the Lynx Blue Line has spurred the construction of apartments near stations in the South End, the city hopes the streetcar will invigorate east Charlotte and Beatties Ford Road.
“People have the impression that it’s a toy, a gimmick, that it’s not real,” said Susan Lindsay, an eastside activist who supports the streetcar. “We are talking about transit. We are talking about infrastructure.”
Blue Line funding
Further complicating the streetcar’s future is the fate of a planned extension of the Lynx Blue Line to University City.
That $1 billion project is close to construction, and CATS is expecting to sign this fall an agreement with the Federal Transit Administration to pay for half of the construction costs.
But the N.C. Senate’s budget doesn’t include money for the Blue Line, which jeopardizes the roughly $500 million in federal funding that CATS needs. (The House budget includes light rail funding. The General Assembly is meeting to try to find a compromise between the two budgets.)
Barnes, who represents University City, said he’s worried that if the city is spending more than $100 million on a streetcar, N.C. legislators may think that Charlotte doesn’t need state help.
“I was told the streetcar would never compete with the Blue Line,” Barnes said. “Now I’m worried that’s happening.”