Charlotte’s Gold Line streetcar shimmers on first run

Charlotte's first streetcar in 77 years

United States Transportation Secretary and former Charlotte mayor Anthony Foxx joined other local dignitaries in a ceremony opening Charlotte's first streetcar in 77 years on Tuesday, July 14, 2015.
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United States Transportation Secretary and former Charlotte mayor Anthony Foxx joined other local dignitaries in a ceremony opening Charlotte's first streetcar in 77 years on Tuesday, July 14, 2015.

Charlotte’s first streetcar line in 77 years started rolling Tuesday, after a ribbon-cutting highlighted by a spirited speech from former mayor and current U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

Foxx, who was one of the streetcar’s biggest supporters during his time as mayor, said the project would spark economic development and said it could help close racial and economic divisions in the city.

The ceremony, held at the city’s bus terminal because of rain, attracted public officials, some business leaders and curiosity seekers.

When the Gold Line streetcar opened to the public three hours later, the crowds were more subdued. The streetcar’s first passenger trip carried about 50 people, including the media and city officials.

“I never dreamed it would be anything like this. I’m overwhelmed,” said Charlotte resident Cathy Mullis, who was on the streetcar’s first public ride. “It doesn’t seem like I’m in Charlotte.”

The streetcar runs for 1.5 miles from Time Warner Cable Arena to Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center. There are six stops on the route, which is on Trade Street and Elizabeth Avenue.

Jasmine Lewis, a student at King’s College in Elizabeth, rode the streetcar from Hawthorne Lane to the bus station. She usually took the free Gold Rush trolley, but said she preferred the streetcar.

“The ride is nicer,” she said.

Later in the afternoon, the streetcar carried fewer passengers. At 5:30 p.m., the car leaving uptown carried five people as it passed through Central Piedmont Community College.

By contrast, the opening of the Lynx Blue Line light rail in 2007, the city’s previous rail line opening, had thousands clamoring for rides.

Personal speech

As a member of President Obama’s cabinet, Foxx gives speeches across the country, celebrating new transportation projects.

For him, Tuesday’s speech was personal. It resembled a sequel to a January 2013 State of the City address he gave as mayor when he questioned the motivations of people opposing the streetcar. In that speech, he questioned whether people were skeptical of the project because it would serve mostly minority neighborhoods in east and west Charlotte.

Foxx began his speech Tuesday noting the tragic shooting in Charleston and alluded to civil unrest in Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo. He said the nation needs dialogue about racial and economic divisions, but also what he said is “action-based dialogue,” or projects that improve people’s lives.

“In fact, we do need to have a dialogue,” Foxx said. “But we need a dialogue that’s rooted in actions. Actions that we’re willing to take as a nation and as a community to turn the page on our history, to create a new fabric for our country.”

He said people who have said that the streetcar goes “nowhere” should think about the impact of their words, especially among people who live along its planned route.

“This isn’t a project to nowhere,” he said, noting that he grew up near Beatties Ford Road, which would be part of a streetcar expansion. If that’s true, he said, “then my hometown is ‘Nowhere, N.C.,’” Foxx said.

Among the council members attending was mayoral candidate Michael Barnes, a fellow Democrat, who has consistently voted against the streetcar. Barnes has said he is opposed to how the project is being paid for with general fund tax dollars rather than money allocated for transit.

At the end of his time as mayor, Foxx had also clashed with the Charlotte Chamber over the group’s reluctance to endorse the streetcar. The group said at the time that its leadership was split over the project.

Chamber president Bob Morgan attended the ceremony Tuesday.

Foxx said after the ceremony that “ribbon cuttings draw all comers. I will leave it there. It’s not the first time.”

Election issue

The Gold Line has the support of a majority of City Council and current Mayor Dan Clodfelter, a Democrat seeking to retain his seat.

It will likely be a major theme in the fall elections, especially if the Charlotte Area Transit System doesn’t realize its daily ridership projections of 1,100 passenger trips.

In addition to Barnes’s opposition to how the streetcar is funded, the two Republican mayoral candidates, Scott Stone and Edwin Peacock, are against the project.

Peacock issued a statement Tuesday saying the Gold Line “breaks the trust the public has placed in city government” because it doesn’t focus on the region’s “highest transit priorities.”

Hope for development

Clodfelter said the streetcar will hopefully reorient the traditional view of development in Charlotte from its north-south axis and bring more investment to the city’s east-west corridors. The idea is that the streetcar will cause the same kind of boom that the Blue Line light rail started in South End.

“The Charlotte Lynx Gold Line is a catalyst for economic development,” said Charlotte City Council member Patsy Kinsey, a Democrat.

Some early development is already materializing. Grubb Properties, which owns about 12 acres along Elizabeth Avenue, is restarting long-delayed plans to overhaul the street, which was one of the routes for Charlotte’s original streetcar lines.

Grubb is planning to build up to 550 apartments at Elizabeth Avenue and North Torrence Street, on land that’s vacant. The development will include up to 20,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space, and construction is set to start by the second quarter of 2016.

Last month, the Knight Foundation pledged $1.5 million toward revitalizing the western part of the streetcar route, in the area around Johnson C. Smith University. The group cited the streetcar as the main impetus behind the investment.

The city has set aside money to build a second phase of the streetcar, which would expand the current route by 2.5 miles. The Obama budget has a $75 million grant for Charlotte to help pay for the $150 million construction costs.

But the city has no other money to build a third streetcar phase, or any other rail project.

Foxx told the crowd that a large part of construction costs is because of inflation. He said the city should do what it can to build transit sooner rather than later to save money.

He said Los Angeles passed a dedicated sales tax for transit, as Charlotte did in the late 1990s.

“You are now competing against existing lines like Los Angeles,” Foxx said.

Gold Line

Free ride: The streetcar is free.

Hours: The streetcar runs 6 a.m.-11 p.m. weekdays, except Friday when it stops at midnight.

Service on Saturday is 8 a.m.-midnight; Sunday service is 9 a.m.-7 p.m.

Schedule: There is no published schedule. The streetcar operates alongside other vehicles and is subject to the same traffic signals and congestion as motorists. A streetcar arrives at each of six stations every 15 minutes during peak times on weekdays: 7-9 a.m. and 4-6 p.m. The streetcar runs every 20 minutes at other times. A one-way trip should take 10 to 12 minutes.

Rules of the road: The streetcar will share Trade Street and Elizabeth Avenue with vehicles.

If you are driving and see a streetcar in your rear-view mirror, you don’t need to change how you drive. You don’t have to pull over and let the streetcar pass.

The streetcar will stop when you stop, but CATS has a warning: The streetcars can’t stop quickly, taking almost 100 feet to stop at 16 mph.

There is one place where cars have to be aware of the trolleys: The intersection of Hawthorne Lane and Elizabeth Avenue.

If you are trying to make a right turn from Hawthorne Lane onto Elizabeth Avenue, heading toward uptown, the streetcar will be in the middle of the street, to your left. It will have priority to make its right turn onto Elizabeth Avenue before you.

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