Proposal could put streetcar back on track

City manager’s plan would exclude property taxes 
by Herbert L. White 

Charlotte’s much-maligned streetcar program has a new name and a new funding scheme.

It also has a potential convert on City Council, which ran the streetcar off the rails last year as an expense taxpayers couldn’t afford.

Mayor Pro Tem Patrick Cannon offered support for City Manager Ron Carlee’s plan for the $126 million CityLynx Gold Line extension on Wednesday, saying the proposal protects vulnerable taxpayers who struggle to pay for services. 

It would also be brought before the Metropolitan Transit Commission as part of the panel’s overall regional transit plan. The MTC oversees the Charlotte Area Transity Authority and Charlotte’s half-cent sales tax for transportation.

“The manager recommended what I’ve been asking for all along,” said Cannon, who is expected to campaign for mayor this year and has been part of a 6-5 majority that blocked the streetcar as part of the Capiltal Improvement Plan crafted by former city manager Curt Walton, Carlee’s predecessor.

“Today I feel much better about what has been suggested because that’s what I’ve been asking for all along.” 

Carlee’s proposal includes $63 million in federal funds coupled with an equal amount of unspent funds from city coffers. Previous streetcar proposals were shot down by City Council because they would be funded through property taxes. Advocates contend the Gold Line would spur economic development along its route.

“It’s all about the dependability of rail and way that rail really leverages economic development in ways that buses really cannot do,” Carlee said at a May 14 media briefing. “Once you put rail in the street, people know where it is, they know where it goes and have a much stronger level of confidence in investing in those areas.”

Carlee pointed out that the streetcar, which would connect inner city neighborhoods in east and west Charlotte, won’t evoke images of bygone transportation. The Gold Line, he maintains, is an economic investment in emerging communities. 

“We’re not going back to the past,” he said. We’re really trying to go to future. It’s a rail project in the same way we utilize the Blue Line, which has been phenomenally successful and which we’re moving to the next extension.”

Shannon Binns, executive director at Sustain Charlotte, an advocacy group for sustainable living stewardship, endorsed the plan.

"Building the next segment of the Gold Line as quickly as possible is critical as costs to taxpayers will increase each year that it is delayed," Binns wrote in an e-mail. "As the manager has explained, the Gold Line is a critical element of our voter approved 2030 transit plan. Without it, the efficiency and usefulness of the entire system is compromised because without an east-west rail corridor, we simply have a rail line, not a system and half our residents will not be connected to the system."

Assuming Carlee’s best-case scenario of a 2014 start, the 2.5-mile, 11-stop extension would be completed by 2019. The Gold Line would connect Johnson C. Smith University in the west to Center City and the Elizabeth neighborhood in the east. Local funding would come from existing available debt capacity ($39.7 million), and Pay-Go balances in the general capital investment fund ($23.3 million). If federal money isn’t available, Carlee maintains the project wouldn’t move forward.

“We believe we have an opportunity to advance this project in ways that will give us the lowest cost in advancing it and that is through the pursuit of federal grants,” he said.

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