Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Did Charlotte just take a $12 million streetcar gamble?

It's not news that most of Charlotte's City Council badly wants a streetcar extension. How badly? As the Observer's Steve Harrison reports, the council voted 8-3 Monday night to spend $12 million on engineering work to improve its chances of landing a federal grant.

That grant, if approved, would match the city's $63 million of funding for the 2.5 mile extension that expands the streetcar's reach to the westside and Johnson C. Smith. Streetcar enthusiasts say that extension will kindle business development along the route, something that's desperately needed in west Charlotte neighborhoods.

Streetcar doubters, however, say that $12 million is a lot to spend without a guarantee that the feds will say yes to Charlotte's grant application. If the grant isn't approved, did we just burn a lot of money?

Not really. The $12 million is the kind of responsible streetcar investment the editorial board has been advocating, even if we haven't always advocated for the streetcar. Here's why:

In recent years, we've found ourselves somewhere between the streetcar enthusiasts and the streetcar critics. We're skeptical that streetcars will bring the kind of booming development its advocates have touted - trolleys, unlike light rail, have shown little of that kind success in other cities (at least without some additional public assistance). But over the long term, a streetcar is an important piece of Charlotte's long-term transportation plan.

So when Mayor Anthony Foxx and some council members championed a plan that called for the extension to be paid with property taxes, we cautioned against taking a risk that raised taxes in still-challenging economic times. Last year, City Manager Ron Carlee came up with a better proposal - apply for $63 million in federal grants, then pay the other half of the streetcar extension with unspent money from previous projects and reserve funds.

The feds, however, turned the city's grant down last year. Now Charlotte is trying again, but this time for a different grant from the Federal Transit Administration's Smart Starts program. Here's where the $12 million comes in.

Unlike the previous grant application, Smart Starts requires a lot more from the city. Charlotte Area Transit System CEO Carolyn Flowers told the editorial board this week that the application requires an engineering plan that's drawn to a 65 percent level of detail, instead of 30 percent. The city also must submit a more detailed vehicle and line design plan, plus a financial plan that looks ahead 30 to 50 years.

All that costs millions of dollars - as it did with previous light rail proposals - and yes, it comes with no guarantee of the grant being approved. The good news: If Charlotte's Smart Starts application is approved, the city is eligible to get half of the $12 million reimbursed.

And if the grant application is rejected? The $12 million worth of work will be used again in the future. Because you can be sure Charlotte officials will doggedly apply for streetcar grants until they get a yes. That's not a bad thing. It's sharing the risk on a potentially good investment, and it's the most responsible route the council can take.

Peter St. Onge



coasterwes said...

I don't understand why the people that are so for street car, can't bring in some of their own money.

Seems like Michael Jordan and other with deep pockets could chip in for such a gamble.

Don't get me wrong, I like the street car idea but in these challenging economic times, I can't see it making sense to spend that kind of money on a gamble.

James Edgar said...

The reason I am so set against the streetcar is that there is no traffic benefit. The LYNX travels separately from the rest of the traffic, and getting to bypass congestion and traffic lights make it an attractive commute option. And we have seen that it has done very well.

But streetcars travel in the same lanes as other traffic. It has to stop for traffic lights. In essence, it's just a gigantic car. And the section of Elizabeth Ave from Kings to Hawthorne? With only 1 lane in each direction, it's going to make traffic worse, not better. The one and only traffic benefit is that it holds more people than a bus and so you can run fewer vehicles each day with the streetcar as opposed to a bus. In every other way, it worsens the situation.

So I continue to say, stop wasting money on the useless streetcar and spend that money on getting more light rail in place.

todd said...

perhaps if they hadn't given 90 million taxpayer dollars to Jerry Richardson and his extremely rich ownership group they wouldn't even need to beg from the Gov't...

Alannc44 said...

I lived in a city in South America that installed an entire subway system faster than they're putting in a couple of rails down Trade/Elizabeth. By the time they remove and relocate the utility lines, they might as well dig a trench and install the rails under ground. What's the big deal about running it down the middle of the street? Does that mean you can wave at your friends while moving?

QED said...

This new strategy for the streetcar outlined in the Observer really does seem the best to date.

The streetcar is certainly not as attractive an option as a Lynx-like line running that East and West; however, it is certainly better than no improvements.

One of the major complaints is that since the streetcar rides in traffic it is no more efficient than driving. However, the streetcar offers its riders other advantages such as avoiding the stress of driving and paying for parking.

The Lynx has certainly helped transform the communities all along its line. It's hard to imagine that the streetcar won't have a similar effect along its route. Even if its a diminished effect, the benefit of the streetcar will far exceed the cost.

Ettolrahc said...

West Charlotte, wants it, so need we read anymore from the fair and balanced editorial staff of the observer on this subject.

CharlotteObserver said...

Thank Observer, what would Charlotte be without you.

par said...

another reason for me to move out of Charlotte. Wasteful spending. However, I am fully supportive of the light rail system.

Wiley Coyote said...

Streetcar enthusiasts say that extension will kindle business development along the route


The streetcar along that route doesn't make business!. If there was a need, busnesses would already be there absent a streetcar.

How in the world did other areas of Charlotte have businesses pop up WITHOUT a streetcar?

This is a boondoggle along the lines of the NASCAR HOF, Whitewater Center and bailing out Jerrry Richardson.

Yooohoooo... anyone figured out where the money will come from to run this folly?

Michael Barnes? PLEASE run for Mayor and bring some brains and sanity to this city!

On Point said...

Has anyone checked the math? $12M/$126M = almost 10% of overall cost to advance the design from 30% to 65%. Design for the entire project to advance from 0% to 100% should be around 6 to 7%. This does not add up. Can you say blank check? Financial oversight is needed.

Garth Vader said...

Peter you write:

"a streetcar is an important piece of Charlotte's long-term transportation plan."

Yet you provide absolutely no argument/evidence to back up this claim.

How is a streetcar better than a bus? Buses don't require hundreds of millions in additional infrastructure spending. Bus routes can be changed dynamically to reflect changes in housing patterns and desired destinations. Buses don't shut down traffic, and travel at nearly the same speed.

Many businesses on Elizabeth have already shut down because they could not weather the disruptions caused by streetcar construction.

So unless Charlotte's "long-term plan" is to waste money, kill businesses, disrupt traffic and move people slowly, how exactly does the streetcar fit?

Garth Vader said...


You gonna answer my question? Please don't be a Fannie.