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Charlotte Area

Charlotte Streetcar Begins Operation

David Boraks

For the first time since the late 1930s, Charlotte has a running streetcar.  Tuesday’s opening of the track is the first phase of a controversial 10-mile project that’s envisioned to connect east and west Charlotte.

On its first day, riders tested the green and yellow trolleys. Matt Gilbride, 24, took the street car from his job Uptown to get a cup of coffee in Elizabeth.

“I really like not having to drive my own car in Charlotte,” Gilbride said. “I thought it was fun, it was good.”

Brianna Lockhart, a high school student was less impressed.

“It’s okay. It’s loud and kind of bumpy, but it’s all right,” Lockhart said.

Unique Bennett, 21, thinks it will save him time on his commute to Central Piedmont Community College,

“I take the bus first and then I wait for the trolley at the transit, and I’m always late for class when I catch that, so that’s going to be a lot more convenient,” Bennett said.

So far, the street car runs from Hawthorne Lane and Fifth Avenue Street in Elizabeth to the Charlotte Transit Center Uptown. Cars run every 15-20 minutes and they’re free, for now.

Near the eastern end, the streetcar passes Crown Station Coffee House & Pub. Outside, a chalk board reads “Welcome Gold Line!” Founder Billy Dail says he chose the location with the street car in mind.

“We’ve been planning on seeing more traffic coming up this corridor, as opposed to just relying on the CPCC students,” Dail says. “So we’d like to see more businesses and traffic around here, which has already started to happen a little bit.”

Proponents of the street car hope it will draw businesses like Dail’s, especially to economically depressed areas in east and west Charlotte.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx—a prime backer of the street car when he was Charlotte mayor—made that point at a ribbon-cutting ceremony Tuesday morning.

“This transit asset is not just about transportation, it’s about bringing opportunities into parts of the city that have been historically underserved,” Foxx said. “And, also, by virtue of that, improving the whole city.”

It doesn’t travel to those areas yet, but what the city calls “Phase Two” will extend the track 2.5 miles to Johnson C. Smith University, as well as replace the old-timey trolleys with cars like on the Blue Line and charge passengers bus rates.

Mayor Dan Clodfelter says the tracks let businesses know the city is committed to those areas.

“There’s going to be permanent, fixed, transit service that’s going to serve the entire community, so they’re willing to look at and consider putting dollars at risk in new investment,” Clodfelter said.

But the project has been controversial in Charlotte. The current line’s estimated cost is $37 million, with federal funding paying for about two-thirds. The extension could cost $150 million more, with the city chipping in half, and then another extension to 10 miles of track planned in the future.

The expense has divided the city council. Councilwoman Claire Fallon, like Foxx a Democrat, voted against the most recent budget because of it. She wanted to kill the project to fill a budget hole.

“As long as that Gold Line is going, I’m not raising taxes,” Fallon said in the lead up to the vote.

And Republican mayoral candidate Edwin Peacock is already looking to make the street car an election issue. His campaign released a video criticizing the project.

Part of the controversy is that Charlotte’s street car runs in the street—with cars. Florida State University urban planning professor Jeff Brown says that gives it the problems of both buses and rail.

“It’s operating in the same lanes as other vehicles, so it’s subject to the same congestion and vehicle conflicts,” Brown says. “It’s not flexible like a bus is. It’s going to be relatively slow.”

While the street cars top out at 30 miles per hour, Brown says with all the stopping and starting they’ll probably average more like 5-7. He’ s also skeptical of economic development claims.

“I’m willing to be convinced if the evidence is there,” Brown says.  “It’s just I haven’t seen any strong evidence.”

Brown says many cities—including Tampa, Portland, Little Rock, and Seattle—built street cars to spur economic development. In some cases that development occurs, but it’s not clear whether the street car carries it.