Mark Washburn

Runaway streetcar has deeper problems

Workers examine and clean up the front end of a streetcar last Saturday after it was involved in an accident with a SUV.
Workers examine and clean up the front end of a streetcar last Saturday after it was involved in an accident with a SUV. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

In only its first weekend, our new streetcar has already stimulated the economy – for auto body shops.

Pilot error is a good metaphor for the Gold Line project, an unnecessary trolley built on untested promises and driven by out-of-control spending.

OK, you’re absolutely right. That’s not fair. Because:

▪  As any Nobel Prize winner in particle physics will tell you, a 10-ton runaway streetcar full of screaming passengers cannot be expected to stop on a dime.

▪  You must expect a kink or two when, with great ceremonial fanfare, you revive a technology that we discarded, with great ceremonial fanfare, in 1938.

▪  That SUV, stopped for a red light, was practically asking for it.

Any accident is traumatic for those involved in it, but fortunately no one was seriously hurt last weekend when Streetcar 91 got away from its driver.

It rolled about a half-mile down Elizabeth Avenue before hitting an SUV waiting on the tracks, which share a lane with street traffic. Pilot error in the streetcar’s cockpit, investigators say.

Pilot error is a good metaphor for the entire Gold Line project, an unnecessary trolley built on untested promises and driven by out-of-control spending.

It rolls to and fro along a 11/2-mile corridor between the Hornets’ arena and the hospital formerly known as Presbyterian, a route long served by a bus, taxis, the Gold Rush shuttle or a 30-minute stroll.

No, supporters say. You mustn’t think of it as a transporter, you silly old thing. If we wanted to move people, we’d never build a rattly old streetcar. It’s really a magic tram splashing prosperity along its path.

Developers will follow in the trolley’s wake, conjuring up all manner of housing, retail and office space wherever it runs, even to Eastland Mall, they say.

It is true the city’s light rail has been successful beyond predictions in riders and the development in neighborhoods through which it glides.

But it’s a different animal – a safe, hassle-free, efficient train that collapses travel times between distant points and the bustling uptown. Within two years, it should yank University City closer to the urban core and inject vitality into the North Tryon corridor.

How does a streetcar move civilization forward? With lurches and grunts, that’s how. It travels in the street with traffic, stops for red lights and gets stuck when something breaks down in front of it.

It is not as nimble as a sooty old bus. It can’t stick to schedule. It comes and go when it comes and goes. You can take it to your job, assuming you’ve got a boss who doesn’t care when you show up. Call me when you find one.

And the money it costs. Already, we’ve put $37 million into this thing and they’re going to call it a success if it carries 1,100 people a week. Most soccer moms would swear they transport that many wiggling beings every week in the van.

There’s $150 million to extend the tracks another 21/2 miles – yes, also along busy city streets, already served by a bus route.

There’s a lot riding on the streetcar, like the next city election. That’s what it may take to apply the brakes on the runaway train.

Mark Washburn: 704-358-5007, mwashburn@charlotteobserver.com @WashburnChObs

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