U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx praised a streetcar project Thursday, saying the rail line would connect a “burgeoning central business district” to an “under-served” part of the city.
He said the streetcar would create a new “mobility choice” and would create “significant economic impact.”
It sounded almost exactly like his old mayoral stump speech for a 2.5 mile extension of Charlotte’s streetcar line.
But Foxx was instead praising a streetcar for Kansas City, Mo., which won a $20 million federal grant Thursday from the U.S. Department of Transportation, which Foxx oversees.
The Charlotte streetcar – which mayor Foxx has said would connect uptown with underserved areas, would spark economic development, and would give people a transportation choice – was shut out. The 2.5-mile extension didn’t receive any federal money.
In a news conference with reporters Thursday, Foxx said he couldn’t comment about the Charlotte streetcar because he has recused himself from all local issues.
“With respect to Charlotte, I am recused from Charlotte,” Foxx said. “So at this point, there is nothing I can say about this application.”
A DOT staff member said projects were graded on five criteria, including items such as safety, livability, environmental impact, and the ability of the project to repair existing infrastructure.
It’s unclear how Charlotte and Kansas City fared on each point.
Foxx did say that the Kansas City project had a “very strong local funding source.” Kansas City’s $20 million grant is 20 percent of the project’s cost. The balance of the money, $80 million, will come from local sources.
By contrast, the Charlotte application was 50 percent federal grant, with a 50 percent local match.
As mayor, Foxx vigorously championed a 2.5-mile streetcar extension. He said the project would create more jobs than any other project in the nearly $1 billion Capital Improvement Program. He also said it was critical to help the low-income areas along Beatties Ford Road and Central Avenue that it is eventually slated to serve.
The city’s first plan was to fund the streetcar entirely through a property tax increase. But a majority of City Council members pushed back against that plan.
During the yearlong debate over the streetcar, Charlotte Chamber President Bob Morgan told the Observer that every time he saw Foxx, the mayor lobbied him intensely to support the project.
City Manager Ron Carlee in May created a new funding plan. He would use $63 million in reserve funds and then apply for $63 million in federal grants.
The TIGER grants – Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery – announced Thursday represented the city’s first attempt to win federal funding for the streetcar extension.
The city asked for $24 million from the federal government. The city’s project would have spent $48 million extending the line from Time Warner Cable Arena to French Street, near Johnson C. Smith University. Included in the $48 million was $18 million for three new streetcar vehicles.
The city planned to seek more federal money and build the rest of the 2.5-mile line at a later date.
Earlier this week City Manager Ron Carlee said the city will have several opportunities for different federal grants. He said he would have been surprised if Charlotte was successful in its first try.
Charlotte Area Transit chief executive Carolyn Flowers said Charlotte can apply for two federal grants that she said are now more geared toward streetcars: New Starts and Small Starts.
Two North Carolina projects were chosen: $10 million to revitalize Main Street in Goldsboro and $10 million to help Raleigh renovate a warehouse to create a new Union Station.
DOT awarded 52 projects to 37 states totaling $474 million.
Foxx’s conference call with reporters came shortly after he briefly addressed about 20,000 delegates of the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc., who were gathered at the Charlotte Convention Center.
In a blog post for the U.S. DOT, Foxx recently wrote “the whole community got behind (the streetcar).” That may overstate the project’s support. During this fall’s city elections, the streetcar has divided a number of candidates.
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