Charlotte and federal officials broke ground Wednesday on the initial 1.5-mile route of the city’s streetcar even as the long-term future of the project remains in doubt.
Mayor Anthony Foxx said the morning ceremony in Elizabeth marks a return of the streetcar to the Charlotte. And U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the project will not only help to diversify transit options in the city, but will also encourage economic development along the route and bring jobs during the route’s construction.
The initial 1.5 miles of the streetcar will stretch from Presbyterian Hospital in Elizabeth to the Charlotte Transportation Center downtown. The $37 million project is being funded using $12 million from the city and a nearly $25 million federal grant. Officials expect the streetcar to start running in 2015.
Still even as officials celebrated the start of major construction for the streetcar, question remains about efforts to extend the line into east and west Charlotte. Money for a 2.5-mile, $119 million extension of the streetcar was part of a failed capital plan the city council considered this spring, and members haven’t been able to reach consensus yet on an alternate plan.
On Monday, Foxx pitched two new proposals: one that included $119 million to extend the streetcar for an additional 2.5 miles, and another that included no money for the project.
The planned 2.5-mile extension would have the streetcar run from French Street near Johnson C. Smith University to Sunnyside Avenue toward east Charlotte. Ultimately, supporters want the streetcar to run for 10 miles.
Supporters of the streetcar have said the project will help bring down overall transit costs in Mecklenburg, while also promote more environmentally-friendly methods of getting around the community. Foxx said the initial 1.5-mile line will help the city start to realize those gains, but said expanding the project will help more.
In addition, he said while the initial route will have some riders “the benefits will only grow as we extend the line out.”
The city council is expected to reconsider the capital plan at a Monday meeting.
Foxx’s budget proposal eliminating the streetcar calls for a property tax rate hike of 1.97 cents for every $100 of taxable value. It would allow the city to spend $463.4 million through 2016. Foxx has described the plans as a “bare-bones effort.”
The second proposal offered by Foxx calls for $803 million in spending, and would require a 3 cent property tax hike.
Five council members support a robust capital plan, including a streetcar, which is also the mayor’s preference. Four council members support a capital plan, but are hesitant about or against building the streetcar.
The two Republicans, for now, are against any plan that requires a property-tax increase.