Charlotte City Council to give streetcar extension a third try

Charlotte City Council to give streetcar extension a third try


by STEVE HARRISON / Charlotte Observer

Posted on November 26, 2012 at 2:21 PM

Updated Monday, Nov 26 at 2:41 PM

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- For the third time this fall, the Charlotte City Council will try Monday to reach consensus on how to pay for a streetcar extension – the main roadblock to passing a capital budget.

Council members are divided about City Manager Curt Walton’s recommendation to spend $119 million on extending a planned starter streetcar line from Time Warner Cable Arena to Johnson C. Smith University. Five council members are for it, while six members are wary about using property taxes to pay for it or are against it completely.

Mayor Anthony Foxx is a strong streetcar supporter, but he indicated earlier this year he wouldn’t insist on including it in a capital plan. Foxx doesn’t vote with the council on the budget, though he can veto their decision.

That leaves a stalemate.

At the council’s last budget workshop in September, council members discussed numerous alternative ways of paying for a streetcar, including special assessments for property owners along the line and petitioning Raleigh to increase some taxes, such as the special levy on hotel and motel rooms.

But there was no plan put forward. And it’s unclear if anyone will have a specific plan Monday.

In an email to the Observer, Walton said staff members aren’t putting forth a specific funding plan that could be voted up or down. Walton said his recommendation is to pay for the $119 million extension through the capital plan, which is funded by a property tax increase.

Mayor Pro Tem Patrick Cannon said he is hopeful the city can find ways to pay for the streetcar that could supplement property taxes.

“There is a lot of fact-finding between different members of the council to determine if there are alternatives so the pain won’t be as hard on the taxpayers,” Cannon said.

In early 2013, construction is scheduled to start on a 1.5-mile starter streetcar line from Presbyterian Hospital to Time Warner Cable Arena. That $37 million project is mostly funded by a $25 million federal grant and is expected to open in two years.

The plan was to include the streetcar extension into the original project, so a roughly 4-mile line from Johnson C. Smith University to Presbyterian Hospital could open at about the same time.

That could still happen - though the second phase of the streetcar would have to be approved relatively soon.

The starter line would be the first phase of a proposed, larger streetcar line to run from the Eastland Mall area through uptown, where it would branch to two destinations: Charlotte Douglas International Airport and Rosa Parks Transit Center on Beatties Ford Road in northwest Charlotte.

Democrat John Autry, who supports using property taxes to fund the streetcar, said he’s worried that the 1.5-mile starter line might not be long enough to demonstrate what he believes are the streetcar’s full benefits.

“That’s a risk,” Autry said.

He believes the streetcar can increase ridership and spark economic development, especially in struggling areas such as east Charlotte.

The initial plan for the starter line calls for the city to use the green replica trolley cars that were used on the South End trolley a decade ago. The long-range plan for the streetcar calls for the purchase of modern vehicles that resemble the Lynx Blue Line light-rail cars.

“The old trolleys play into the old Tinker-Toy trolley idea,” Autry said. “It might not set the best impression.”

The streetcar is part of Walton’s $926 million capital plan, which he unveiled in the spring. But the streetcar was a sticking point, and council members failed to approve a capital plan.

This will be one of Walton’s last meetings. He is retiring from the city Dec. 21 after five years as manager.