Charlotte City Council members Tuesday held the second of three special budget meetings scheduled before the end of the year, seeking a solution to their months-long impasse. Whether or not to include a streetcar line in the city’s near-term spending plan remains the sticking point.
The streetcar is only $119 million of a more than $900 million proposal to raise property taxes and spend the money on projects meant to spur development in struggling areas of Charlotte.
But at least a few members of city council are not convinced the streetcar’s entire price tag should be included in that plan and months of public and private discussion seem to be leading nowhere.
“I’m feeling a little déjà vu,” acknowledged Mayor Anthony Foxx midway through the council’s Tuesday discussion. The city’s already committed $12 million toward an initial stretch of streetcar from Uptown east to Presbyterian Hospital. The eventual plan would be a 10-mile line from I-85 in West Charlotte over to Eastland Mall.
Foxx and city manager Curt Walton are pushing an intermediate step to finish the line between Johnson C. Smith University and the Plaza Midwood neighborhood. Walton says the primary reason is to spur new development along the route.
“In my mind it’s probably 2/3 economic development, 1/3 transportation because we have the transportation there now,” says Walton.
The streetcar doesn’t bring big transportation benefits because the route is already heavily traveled by city buses.
A streetcar looks like a light rail train, but runs in the street, stopping for red lights. It doesn’t go much faster than a bus or carry that many more people. But it does travel along tracks in the road, so theoretically businesses see a streetcar as more permanent and more attractive to build alongside.
That’s happened along the light rail line, but Councilman Michael Barnes is troubled that property owners aren’t coming forward with plans along the streetcar route.
“That’s why I’m talking about getting the private sector to be more vocal about their willingness to be involved," says Barnes. "Because if you don’t get that buy-in then nothing will happen and we wind up with some tracks and nothing to show for it.”
Well, nothing to show but higher property taxes, as the plan now stands. Barnes wants Charlotte to fund its streetcar like other cities including Cincinnati and Portland have – with a mix of taxes, fees and private contributions.
If the city council can’t settle on plan by its next budget meeting on November 26th, Charlotte’s ambitious streetcar plans could be stopped in their tracks.