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Carlee forces skeptics to give streetcar a look

In one sense, everything has suddenly changed in the heated debate over Charlotte’s controversial streetcar. In another, nothing has.

Until now, the City Council has split on whether a 2 1/2-mile streetcar extension is a smart investment, and if so, whether it is worth $126 million in local property taxes.

With City Manager Ron Carlee’s new proposal, the second question is off the table. What remains is the first: Does Charlotte believe a streetcar has any significant economic development and transportation benefits or not?

Carlee on Monday and Tuesday detailed an approach that dramatically changes the math. He proposes that the city apply for $63 million in federal money. If that comes through – and Carlee said Tuesday he believes “we have a really good shot” – the local cost of the streetcar would be cut in half. (If it doesn’t come through? Nothing gained, nothing lost. Back to the drawing board.)

For the rest, Carlee has cobbled together $63 million in unspent money from previous projects and various reserve funds. That money did not come from property taxes but from sales taxes and other sources. It has not been pegged for any other use.

This all crystallizes the question the City Council faces. The council is debating whether to raise property taxes 7.25 percent to pay for $816 million in capital projects such as roads, bridges, sidewalks, police stations and affordable housing. Carlee’s $63 million could go to those projects instead of to the streetcar, which would shrink the tax hike a little bit.

By doing so, council members would be saying that they have analyzed every project in the $816 million plan and decided that all would be smarter investments for Charlotte’s future than a streetcar would be. That is the analysis that needs to be done, and the debate that needs to be had.

Carlee said last month he was pulling the streetcar out of the larger capital package. It has been the most controversial piece, and separating it smoothed the way for approving the rest of the plan. But changing its name from “streetcar” to CityLynx Gold Line, as Carlee has done, doesn’t mean it’s not a streetcar. And having $63 million in hand doesn’t mean the city should skip debating how to spend it.

We have long been more optimistic than the doubters and more pessimistic than the cheerleaders on the value of a streetcar. We are skeptical it will spark booming new development, as Mayor Anthony Foxx has argued, or that it will pay for itself anytime soon. We do believe that over the long term it could be one important piece of a much larger transit plan.

Carlee acknowledged Tuesday that the cost will likely climb from today’s estimates. And he conceded that the economic development sparked by the streetcar could be limited during the first two phases. Such benefits, he predicts, won’t come for 20 to 30 years, once the entire 10-mile line is built. For a good while, any new property taxes the line generates would be roughly offset by its operating costs.

So this would be a long-term investment. The City Council will have to decide where it ranks among the projects before them. But Carlee’s plan cuts the local cost in half, and forces skeptics to take a second look.

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