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Charlotte’s streetcar getting a serious makeover

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.

The city of Charlotte is moving ahead with plans to replace its replica trolleys with modern, sleek streetcars, and is reviewing proposals from three manufacturers.

Charlotte’s streetcar operates today with three replica cars built by the Gomaco Trolley Co. that resemble trolleys from decades ago. They were first used in 2004, when they operated on the 2-mile trolley from uptown to South End that preceded the light-rail line.

In part to bolster support for the project, the city has rebranded the controversial streetcar as the Gold Line, and ordering new cars has been seen as a way for the project to shed its image as a novelty. U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, who launched the project when he was mayor, repeatedly told skeptics that the streetcar “is not a toy.”

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.

City Council member LaWana Mayfield, a Gold Line supporter, said the new cars can help the project’s image, which she said has been unfairly tarnished by critics and the media.

“It was always going to be the modern-day cars,” she said.

Charlotte plans to buy seven new vehicles, which would cost between $3.8 million and $4.8 million per vehicle, depending on which vendor is selected. That could total as much as $33 million.

The city’s first Gold Line segment, which is 1.5 miles, opened in July and cost $37 million.

The Charlotte Area Transit System is expected to make a recommendation on which streetcar to buy early this summer, and the City Council is scheduled to vote on the contract July 25. They would enter service when the second phase of the streetcar opens in 2020.

That phase will extend the line to Johnson C. Smith University to the west and to Sunnyside Avenue to the east. The 2.5-mile extension will cost $150 million, with the federal government paying half the cost. The city will spend $75 million.

Construction bids are due in June. Construction could begin this fall and last about three years.

Here are the three companies that have submitted proposals for the new streetcar:

▪ Siemens built the vehicles on the Lynx Blue Line, and the model considered for the streetcar – the S70 – is essentially the same vehicle.

Siemens is one of the largest providers for streetcars and light-rail in the U.S. In addition to Charlotte’s light-rail line, the S70 is used in Atlanta, Houston, Norfolk, Salt Lake City, among other markets. Siemens is based in Germany, but the company builds its streetcars in Sacramento, Calif.

▪ Pennsylvania-based Brookville Equipment Corp. has built streetcars for a handful of cities. Dallas uses the Liberty Modern model that would be built for Charlotte.

▪ Stadler Rail, based in Switzerland, has pitched its Tramlink train, which is used in London and other European cities.

Charlotte’s streetcars today can seat 48 people and hold 57 people standing for 105 total. The Siemens and Brookville models have more seats, and the Stadler Rail streetcar is similar in size to the Gomaco.

The second phase of the Gold Line will cross the intersection of Trade and Tryon streets. CATS isn’t certain whether it will extend the overhead catenary wires that power the streetcars through the city’s iconic intersection, or whether it will select a streetcar that can operate on battery power for a short period.

David McDonald, Gold Line project manager for CATS, said all three manufacturers have said their cars can operate for short distances on battery power.

CATS said it plans to raise the platforms on the six stations that were built for the first phase of the streetcar. Passengers today have to step up to board the Gomaco trolleys; the new platforms will let passengers walk on to the vehicles more easily.

CATS projected that the first phase of the Gold Line would handle about 1,100 passenger trips per day. The streetcar has so far exceeded those ridership expectations.

From September to January, the Gold Line averaged 1,657 passenger trips per weekday.

But the Gold Line will have a new challenge when the second phase opens. The streetcar is free today, but CATS plans to charge Gold Line passengers the cost of a one-way bus or train ticket, which is $2.20 today.

Katie prepared for this challenge by drinking raspberry rosé sangria and eating half of a dark chocolate bar the night before. And by stretching. Always stretch. .

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs

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