Weve been supportive in this space about Charlottes streetcar project. The 10-mile line, in theory, could prompt much-needed development along its route, notably in struggling neighborhoods in east Charlotte and near Johnson C. Smith University.
But as with most households and businesses in this difficult economic climate, our citys expenses need to do a better job of justifying their existence. So it is with the streetcar, which has become a lynchpin issue in the City Council budget thats currently in limbo and facing a June 30 deadline. Opponents of Curt Waltons proposed capital plan, which calls for an 8 percent property tax increase, have been reluctant to burden taxpayers now to support far-flung revitalization projects. Exhibit A, according to the councils skeptics, is the $119 million in the budget for the streetcar.
Mayor Anthony Foxx, along with at least three Democrats on the council, think the streetcar is worth higher taxes. For Foxx, thats a bit of a departure from 2009, when he was a candidate for mayor and stated flatly: We arent proposing or considering any increase in property taxes, and now would be a terrible time to think of that. I will not raise property taxes for the streetcar. Foxx lamely tried to explain that away Thursday, saying he was talking about a four-cent increase then, not a smaller increase now.
Fuzzy memories aside, what would we be getting for the $119 million? A 2.5-mile stretch of the streetcar line that adds to an already-paid-for 1.5-mile segment from Time-Warner Cable arena to Presbyterian Hospital. The proposed segment would extend the track through uptown to the westside and Johnson C. Smith.
Streetcar advocates say those neighborhoods could see the same benefits brought by Charlottes light rail, which has exceeded ridership expectations and sparked development in South End. But there are critical differences between light rail and streetcar. The latter would operate on regular streets, stopping for red lights and traffic congestion. It wouldnt be faster than a bus. It would merely be a very expensive, but very pretty, bus. What the city is buying is an aesthetic.
The question for council members: Will that coolness factor change ridership enough to convince developers to build along the streetcars route? Streetcar supporters point to Portland, Ore., where a four-mile streetcar line brought a reported $3.5 billion worth of new construction. But an analysis this month from the Libertarian Cato Institute found that development mostly sprouted in places where Portland gave developers hundreds of millions of dollars in additional subsidies. According to the report: Almost no development took place on portions of the streetcar route where developers received no additional subsidies.
If the city is going to spend $119 million, it might make more sense to more directly seed development as Waltons budget smartly proposes for northeast Charlotte instead of building a streetcar line that one hopes will attract enough riders to then attract developers.
Its not news that the streetcar, like any significant public venture, is a risk. Its also true that the city will have to take some chances in order to achieve a worthy vision of reviving neighborhoods to expand its tax base. But a risk during hearty economic times is different than one that brings a tax increase at a time many residents are hurting. The city should wait for economic stability to return before it revisits the streetcar extension.