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In a switch, City Council OKs streetcar

After a year of bickering, the City Council voted 7-4 Tuesday night to set aside $63 million for a streetcar extension through uptown Charlotte – a decision celebrated by dozens of residents who pleaded for the transit project to move forward.

The vote does not guarantee that the 2.5 miles of streetcar line will be built, because the city must secure a federal grant to move forward.

But the decision settles, for now, an issue that has divided council members and even torpedoed the city’s nearly $1 billion capital budget plan a year ago.

City Manager Ron Carlee’s plan cobbles together $63 million from various pots of money – mostly surpluses that haven’t been spent. The city has said that property taxes wouldn’t be used and staff members have stressed that a tax increase wouldn’t be required to pay for the project – which has been named the CityLynx Gold Line.

The city is currently building a 1.5-mile streetcar line from Time Warner Cable Arena to Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center in the Elizabeth neighborhood.

If the city gets the federal grant, the streetcar would be extended to Johnson C. Smith University to the west and along Hawthorne Lane to the east.

“Please do your part to make a statement for the people,” said Charlotte resident Mattie Marshall, who urged council members to support the streetcar.

She said voters in the streetcar corridor “turned out in record numbers” to keep the half-cent sales tax for transit during a repeal vote in 2007.

“We don’t want you to forget that,” she said.

For much of the past year, streetcar opponents on City Council had the upper hand, with six votes. But on Monday night, two members switched sides – Democrats Beth Pickering and Mayor Pro Tem Patrick Cannon, who is running for mayor.

During council discussion Tuesday night, Pickering listed a number of problems she had with the project. But then said her “No. 1 priority is to revitalize the east and west sides.”

“The neighbors have waited a long time,” Pickering said. “I will support this.”

Victory for Foxx

Pickering’s support was the crucial vote to move the Gold Line forward. After Pickering said she would support the project, Mayor Anthony Foxx entered the council chambers for the first time during the discussion, to roaring applause.

Foxx has lobbied for the streetcar for more than a year. He has been nominated by President Barack Obama to be the next U.S. Transportation Secretary and is expected to be confirmed by the Senate. If confirmed, Foxx could be in a position to help the city land the grant. The mayor hasn’t spoken about any local transportation issues since being nominated in late April.

He didn’t participate in Monday’s discussion. But the vote was a major victory for Foxx, who said the streetcar is the best way to revitalize neighborhoods that “have been stuck for 40 years.”

In a sign of how much the decision meant to the mayor, Foxx compared the vote to the constitutional amendment to prohibit slavery.

“It took the 13th Amendment two times to get passed,” Foxx said. “Sometimes it’s hard to get things done.”

Former council member Edwin Peacock, a Republican who is running for mayor, has said he’s against the plan Carlee proposed.

Voting for and against

Voting for the Gold Line plan were Democrats Patsy Kinsey, Pickering, Cannon, David Howard, James Mitchell, John Autry and LaWana Mayfield.

Voting no were Republicans Andy Dulin and Warren Cooksey and Democrats Michael Barnes and Claire Fallon.

Barnes said he is concerned that the city will be chasing the same federal dollars for the streetcar and for a plan to extend the platforms on the Lynx Blue Line to handle three-car light-rail trains.

“Those projects are competing with each other,” Barnes said. “What would happen if one or the other or neither got any funding?”

Barnes also referenced the sometimes ugly fight over the streetcar that has consumed council members.

“We have done a lot of damage to ourselves,” he said.

Dulin said he “wasn’t willing to drain the piggy bank” for the streetcar.

Last year, former City Manager Curt Walton proposed that the 2.5-mile extension be built as part of a $926 million capital plan, which would have been funded by a property tax increase. But in June 2012, council members were concerned about the tax hike and voted against the plan 6-5.

Council members are now considering an $816 million capital plan that could require a 7.25 percent property tax increase. It’s possible that some of the streetcar money could be directed to the capital plan, which could lower the size of any tax hike.

The city said the 2.5-mile extension would take five years to design and build. If the city secures a federal grant this year, it could carry passengers in 2018 or 2019.

A consultant said the extended streetcar project could produce 1.1 million square feet of new development. The consultant said the new development could produce between $4.7 million and $7 million in new development over the next 25 years.

13th amendment objection

After the vote, Cooksey objected to Foxx’s comparison of the vote to the 13th Amendment.

He said curtly: “I would have voted for the 13th Amendment the first time.”

Foxx and Cooksey then had what appeared to be a heated exchange on the dais, though their conversation wasn’t audible.

After that, Foxx circled back to his comparison.

“There has been an undercurrent about racial projects (with the streetcar),” he said. “I know this guy pretty well. His position on this, and everyone’s position on this, has been based on genuine philosophical differences.”

Eastland Mall

In other action, council members approved a plan to demolish the closed Eastland Mall for $871,520. The city hopes to redevelop the site, possibly into movie studios.

Environmental Holdings Group, which was awarded the demolition contract, has said it can recycle a number of materials in the mall.

The city bought the mall in August 2012 for $13.2 million. The mall closed in 2010.

The council voted 10-1 to approve the mall’s demolition. Dulin voted no.

Harrison: 704-358-5160
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