Streetcar Debate Back in Spotlight for City Council

The debate over Charlotte’s proposed streetcar project took center stage again this week, from Mayor Anthony Foxx’s State of the City address on Monday morning through the conclusion of 2-day City Council retreat on Friday.

On Monday, the Mayor used his address to hit back at streetcar critics, most notably Governor Pat McCrory, who recently warned that committing taxpayer dollars to the project could jeopardize state funding for the Blue Line Extension (BLE). But while Foxx lashed out at the “culture of intimidation” in Raleigh, the governor’s remarks were merely a statement of fact.

State funding for the Blue Line has never been warmly embraced by the General Assembly, and legislators from Mecklenburg will have to fight to keep the annual $25 million appropriation in the budget until the extension is complete. So if the City shows that it can manage to come up with $119 million from its general fund to pay for another rail project, legislators will be less inclined to stretch the state’s ever-tightening transportation dollars to meet their commitment for the BLE.

As he defended the streetcar in his remarks on Monday, Foxx said the project’s economic benefit was not in doubt, and implied that detractors had a problem simply with where the line is intended to run. “Opposition to the streetcar is based on smoke and mirrors,” he insisted. “This is about (luring) new private investment.”

But while many transit projects around the nation have indeed helped to catalyze redevelopment, transit in and of itself has not always proven to be the cure for a neighborhood’s economic ills. If that were the case, then every transit station in America would be a magnet for new housing, jobs and retail. One need only look at Atlanta’s MARTA system to realize that’s far from the truth.

In reality, transit acts more like a growth hormone – helping to accelerate the growth of corridors and activity centers that already have many of the pieces in place to attract economic development. But the Mayor and other city leaders ignore this reality, and point to the streetcar as an investment with a guaranteed economic return for Charlotte’s West Side.

On Thursday morning, when City Council met at the Whitehead Manor Conference Center for its annual retreat, it didn’t take long for the streetcar issue to take center stage. The luncheon speaker was Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, who talked of Atlanta’s own streetcar, a 1.6-mile, $95 million project now under construction between Centennial Olympic Park and the King Center on historic Auburn Avenue.

Reed, who was elected mayor in 2010 after a decade in the Georgia General Assembly, also noted how the Atlanta region “got thumped” last August with the defeat of a one-cent transportation sales tax referendum that would have raised $6 billion for much-need regional road and transit improvements. What he didn’t mention, however, is the role that rail projects may have played in that thumping. The heavy investment in center city transit (52% of the proposed plan) drove opponents the ballot box like nothing else, and the referendum failed by a 37 point margin.

The lesson for Charlotte? Transit is divisive. And when you need support from skeptical voters or appropriations from state legislators, transit projects that do little or nothing to reduce congestion only make your success less likely.

A closer look at the Atlanta streetcar project is also informative. It covers about half the distance of the proposed Charlotte line between Presbyterian Hospital and Beatties Ford Road, but has the advantage of linking two of the Southeast’s most popular tourist destinations: the Georgia Aquarium on the north end of Centennial Olympic Park, and the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site. Also not far from the route are a planned National Civil Rights Museum, the World of Coca-Cola and the future College Football Hall of Fame. Atlanta’s aquarium alone attracts nearly 2 million visitors each year. Charlotte’s Presbyterian Hospital? Hopefully less.

Whatever your opinion of the Charlotte streetcar, the following questions need to be part of the debate:

    How will the streetcar project help reduce Charlotte’s traffic congestion in the decades ahead?Is the city’s pursuit of the $119 million project worth risking the loss of state funding for the Blue Line extension?Will the streetcar jeopardize a future transit tax referendum that could help fund the rest of the 2030 Transit Plan?Where will the remaining $700 million come from to extend the line down Central Avenue to Eastland Mall?

Until City Council begins answering these questions, and not just those about the project’s potential economic development benefits, the streetcar debate will continue to divide the community and delay the adoption of a much-needed Capital Improvement Plan that can can help ensure Charlotte makes the investments that are necessary to keep pace with growth.

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