Does the Charlotte Streetcar sound like a smart investment?

Does the Charlotte Streetcar sound like a smart investment?
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This is an Op-ed submitted by an Agenda reader. 

First, let me introduce myself. My name is Michael Pisarski, I moved to Charlotte in January of 1999. Today I am just shy of 31. That means I went to high school here (West Charlotte and Z. B. Vance High) and also worked for my Computer Engineering degree at UNC Charlotte. I have lived in the North (as in north of UNC Charlotte – Prosperity Church Rd), UNC Charlotte, Uptown (First Ward), East (Mint Hill burbs), South-East (border with Matthews) and South Charlotte. I have the eastern half of Charlotte covered.

All that to say, I call Charlotte “Home” and I love our City!

Second, I was very excited when the first section of the Lynx Blue Line (BL) was opened and even more so when the Blue Line Extension (BLE) to UNC Charlotte got fully approved and funded (cannot wait to take the light rail all the way from South Charlotte to watch some 49er Football). I took the light rail this Thursday from Arrowood to Carson station to get to the Dowd Y, because I-77 was a parking lot!

The light rail is a great thing for Charlotte, it is useful, there is a way to monetize the fare, and a decent attempt to enforce that riders are paying their fare (on my ride this past week, the transit police escorted a passenger off the car because he did not have a ticket/pass). When we were initially promised the South Blvd section of the Blue Line at ~$227 million and ended up with “Revised estimates as of early 2007 called for the project to be completed at a final cost of $462.7 million, more than double the original estimate of $227 million” (Wikipedia). We were pissed and we voiced our concerns. But then the line opened and blew every estimate for ridership (at least initially, and again after the recession) out of the water, and the cost no longer bothered us as much because people were paying to ride the light rail and ridership was up. We even kept the transit tax in place during a November 2007 ballot initiative to repeal the tax (CBJ). This is an oversimplification and glossing over of other problems at CATS, but for the sake of brevity, that’s how it felt.

On the heels of the success of the Blue Line, the Blue Line Extension (BLE) design and development was put into high gear and along with it another project, pushed hard by the new mayor – Anthony Foxx; the Charlotte Streetcar (CSC). A project that from the beginning had no way or plan to monetize the fare and at the same time this project would kill off existing bus routes that are properly monetizing the fare which are at least covering some portion of the overall maintenance costs (update 9:01 am: fare revenue is now part of the discussion, Observer). The kicker with the CSC is that, for the initial Phase 1 a 1.5 mile stretch of CSC was estimated to cost (i.e. sold to us at) $26.3 million but that quickly grew to $37 million (City) by the time construction was set to start. Phase 2, a 2.5 mile extension for the CSC is already approved at… wait for it … $150 million (Observer)  – just 1 mile longer than the initial phase, but $113 million more – that is some serious inflation). So, 1.5 miles at $37 million + 2.5 miles at $150 million = 4 miles at $187 (estimated). The planned CSC route is supposed to be 10 miles long, so we have 6 more glorious miles to fund after Phase 2!

Let’s recap:

  • CSC (Charlotte Streetcar) will not charge for rides (update 9:01 am: fare will be monetized after phase 2 of the project).
  • CSC will kill off bus routes that already bring in revenue.
  • CSC costs are insane and growing, for a “free” ride.
  • CSC operating costs are a recurring cost that has no source of funding other than to eat up the money from other CATS budgets; currently estimated at $6.2 million (Observer) per year. (update: 9:01 am, funding is coming from the city / federal, so does not affect CATS budget)
  • CSC top speed limit is 16 mph! Everywhere the streetcar goes, you are guaranteed to be in traffic- current speed limits on those streets range from 25 – 35 mph (compare that to the 55 mph speed limit of the Lynx BL)

Let me ask you a question, at first glance, does the Charlotte Streetcar sound like a smart investment?

Would you agree to something like this in your own business or even personal life?

Last thoughts…

We claim to love Charlotte, we say we want only the best for Charlotte!

Does the Charlotte Streetcar project sound like we are giving Charlotte the best? Or are we acting like children in a candy store with our parents’ credit card?

We all know, giving your kids candy for breakfast, lunch and dinner is not “loving them”, in the same vein, we should love the City of Charlotte, not by jumping on every frivolous thing but by building a fundamentally strong city. Less sugar and more veggies and protein!

Sources: Observer, Wikipedia, Charlotte Mecklenburg, CBJ, WSOC. Submit feedback or Op-ed here.

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