New name, new money plan for streetcar

Will a new name, a new tie-in to the county’s overall transit plan, and a new funding scheme using no property tax money mean a new outcome that puts an expanded streetcar project into the “yes” column with the Charlotte City Council?

New City Manager Ron Carlee, city staff, and the CEO of the Charlotte Area Transit System, Carolyn Flowers, teamed to give a presentation Monday night at the council’s dinner meeting that signaled a new approach to the controversial streetcar proposal. Last June, the council’s disagreements over the streetcar helped scuttle a larger proposal for a five-year capital projects plan.

Carlee said he thought the streetcar expansion project – adding 2.5 miles to an already-funded 1.5-mile streetcar “starter” project – would compete well for federal funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation. He laid out a proposal to:

  • Re-brand the streetcar as the CityLYNX Gold Line, taking advantage of the popularity of the Lynx Blue Line light rail and picking up the color gold from the existing Gold Rush shuttles through uptown, which use faux-historic-streetcar buses. Using “Lynx” helps convey that the streetcar “is an integral part of our overall transportation policy,” Carlee said.

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  • Seek the blessing of the Metropolitan Transit Commission on May 22. The MTC is the governing body for the overall transit system of buses and the Lynx, as well as proposed-but-unfunded commuter rail to north Mecklenburg, rapid transit along Independence Boulevard and a West Boulevard streetcar.  In recent years there has been concern in some quarters that for the city to proceed on its own dime with the streetcar, which is in the overall 2030 Transit Plan, might cause problems with the MTC.
  • Split the building cost 50-50 between federal grants and city funds. Building the 2.5-mile expansion is estimated to cost $126 million. Carlee proposes that $63 million in city money, none of it from property tax revenues, would come from several places in the city budget, such as existing debt capacity (about $40 million) and some pay-as-you-go funds, including some money from the business corridor revitalization program.

Last year, six council members publicly opposed the streetcar project, which was strongly pushed by Mayor Anthony Foxx, although the mayor has no vote on most council matters. The 2012 proposal would have paid for building the streetcar expansion as part of the city’s capital projects plan, thus paying for it with property tax revenues. But the six gave differing reasons for their opposition. Some said they simply didn’t support a streetcar. Some said they thought the MTC should be the one building all transit projects in the county. Some said they didn’t want to spend property taxes on it.

The five council members who supported the streetcar – David Howard, Patsy Kinsey, James Mitchell, LaWana Mayfield and John Autry – and the mayor said the streetcar would encourage development and re-development along its route, especially if the entire, 10-mile project is finished.

Carlee touched on that point Monday night. “The city of Charlotte will not be able to grow through annexation,” he said. The N.C. General Assembly has tightened the state’s annexation law making it much more difficult for N.C. municipalities to annex the developed land just outside their borders.  “We are either going to be a growing community or a dying community.” And the streetcar, or rather, the CityLYNX Gold Line?

“I know of no other revitalization project that will have a greater impact,” Carlee said.

Mayor Pro Tem Patrick Cannon, after Carlee’s presentation to the council at its dinner meeting, wouldn’t say whether he would support the new streetcar proposal, but did say that by making it part of the MTC’s program and by not using property tax funding, he thought one or more council members who had opposed it previously might change their minds.

What happens next:

  • The council’s economic development committee meets Thursday at noon to discuss Carlee’s streetcar proposal. The committee will also hear a consultant’s report, updating a 2009 economic impact analysis the consultant did looking at the whole proposed 10-mile streetcar route. Click here for part one and here for part two of that 2009 economic analysis.
  • At its May 22 meeting, the Metropolitan Transit Commission will consider the city’s streetcar proposal and whether it’s worth MTC backing.
  • The City Council is scheduled to consider whether to move forward with the streetcar proposal at its May 28 meeting.

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