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Council Members Criticize Delays In Gold Line Streetcar Project

Workers installed bridge sides on the Hawthorne Avenue bridge this summer.
Charlotte Area Transit System
Workers installed bridge sides on the Hawthorne Avenue bridge this summer.

City Council members raised questions Monday about construction delays on Charlotte's $150 million Gold Line streetcar project.

The streetcar through uptown is closed while work continues on a 2½ mile extension that will take it west to Johnson C. Smith University and east to the Elizabeth neighborhood. Work began three years ago, and the line was supposed to open this fall. But Charlotte Area Transit System says problems with the contractor are partly to blame for a delay until early next year.

Larken Egleston
Credit City of Charlotte
Larken Egleston

That has city council member Larken Egleston seeing red. 

“This project is going to be the death of our friendship,” Egleston told CATS CEO John Lewis, who was updating the council on several projects.  

“We've got to do a better job of holding the people we hire, that we contract, that we hire to do work for us, accountable. The level of incompetence on this project is breathtaking,” said Egleston, whose district includes part of the line. 

Lewis acknowledged there has been a lot of “rearranging of chairs on the deck” with the project.

That prompted council member Ed Driggs, who said he has been skeptical of the project, to compare it to the sinking of the Titanic. Driggs said city policies call for choosing the lowest and most responsible bidder, but he wondered if this bidder "was, in fact responsible." 

Lewis told Driggs: “When you find situations and projects where contractors and project sponsors get into this never-ending cycle of claim and counterclaim, you begin to question the process by which we choose contractors.”

In June, CATS raised its own questions, saying that contractor Johnson Brothers showed poor skills at budgeting, scheduling, and construction. That's despite the fact the bidders were all "pre-qualified" by the state Department of Transportation, according to CATS. 

A Johnson Brothers spokeswoman declined to comment Tuesday. 

Delays have included rebuilding the Hawthorne Lane bridge over Independence Boulevard. Work stopped for nine months last year when the contractor had to reorder beams that were the wrong size. It was supposed to reopen last week, but officials recently discovered that concrete on the bridge was poured wrong, delaying installation of rails.  

CATS now says the bridge won't be open until the end of the year, though pedestrians and bikes will be able to use it by the end of this month. 

Egleston welcomed the partial opening, saying that businesses and residents in the neighborhood have suffered for years. He wondered if given these problems the city should rethink its plans for a Gold Line third phase, which would extend the line father north of uptown and east to Eastland Mall. 

"This is tearing up our streets. And it's also tearing up our communities, it's tearing up people's houses. It's tearing up businesses, figuratively speaking and literally speaking," he said. "We've been asking them to put up with that for years."  He wondered if residents and businesses would be wary of another long project. 

City Manager Marcus Jones responded to the concerns by saying he was preparing a confidential memo for council members on unspecified "options" for the Gold Line.  Egleston has said he thinks CATS' disputes with Johnson Brothers could wind up in court.   

David Boraks is a veteran journalist who covers climate change for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.