Candidates in Charlotte City Council primaries Wednesday split mostly along party lines over the proposed streetcar, though two Democrats broke from their party rivals to oppose it.
Their comments came in a series of wide-ranging debates sponsored by the League of Women Voters, taped at WTVI and scheduled for broadcast on Sunday. They are the only televised council debates before Tuesday’s primaries.
The debates featured Democrats running at large and for Districts 2, 4 and 5 and Republicans running in Districts 6 and 7. The primaries are Tuesday, though early voting has gone on for nearly two weeks.
Most Democrats supported extending the streetcar, known as the Gold Line. Republicans oppose the project.
Work is already underway on a 1.5-mile starter line from Time Warner Cable Arena to Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center. But the streetcar suffered a setback this week when the U.S. Transportation Department failed to award the city a $63 million grant.
Matched by the same amount from a city reserve fund, the money was to have helped extend the line.
In the Democratic at-large race, only incumbent Claire Fallon said she opposes the project.
“I will not support it,” she said, adding that she believes those who pay property taxes would eventually be asked to cover costs. She said she supports an east-west light-rail line, which so far has not been proposed.
The other five Democrats who attended the debate – incumbents David Howard and Beth Pickering and challengers Scott Jenkins, Vi Lyles and Nancy Wiggins – supported the line.
They said it would boost economic development to struggling areas on the east and west sides and connect people to jobs.
Michael Barnes, a District 4 council member running at large, did not attend.
The proposed streetcar would run past Johnson C. Smith University in District 2. Candidates in that district – Al Austin, Brenda Stevenson and John White – supported the line. White even said he’d be willing to use property taxes on the streetcar and other projects.
“We can raise taxes,” he said. “We’re a prosperous city. We’re not Detroit. We can put a half-cent sales tax on. Whatever it takes.”
Democrats Rocky Bailey and Justin Stewart did not attend the debate. Stewart remains in jail on charges of robbery with a dangerous weapon and assault and battery.
Two Democrats in District 4 in northeast Charlotte – Wil Russell and Levester Flowers – said they would support a “limited” property tax for the streetcar. Russell said he would limit the tax to property owners along the line. Greg Phipps said he might support a special tax district near the line.
Leonard Richardson III said while he supports the streetcar, he can’t support a tax increase.
“For me to say ‘raise property taxes again’ would be irresponsible,” he said.
The streetcar would run along Central Avenue in District 5, which stretches into east Charlotte. Incumbent Democrat John Autry said the line is part of the city’s long-range transit plan. He said the city will continue looking for federal money.
But his primary opponent, Mitchell Smith-Bey, said the city should focus on existing transportation and improve bus routes and add bus shelters.
“Adding another line … is just putting too much on the table,” he said. “Let’s start bringing solutions to what’s already in place.”
Republican candidates in the two southeast Charlotte districts uniformly oppose the streetcar.
District 6 Republican Kate Payerle called it irresponsible. James Peterson said it makes no “economic sense.”
And Kenny Smith called the streetcar “another government boondoggle.”
Ken Lindholm did not attend.
In District 7, Republicans Ed Driggs, Jay Privette and Duncan Wilson opposed the streetcar.
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