Mark Washburn

Charlotte streetcar scheme will burden taxpayers for decades

Amazed, astonished, astounded and awed. And that’s just the A’s.

Like you, I was taken completely unawares by the bulletin last week that the Charlotte trolley extension – a futuristic transportation marvel that promises to reshape the economic landscape – is going to run a wee bit over budget.

A wee bit, in the calculus of streetcar projects, is $24 million, or about 20 percent.

Yipes. No wonder they call it the Gold Line.

Next spring, the first phase of the trolley will begin rolling. For $37 million, we’re getting a mile-and-a-half starter trolley that will rumble from Time Warner Cable Arena to the medical campus formerly known as Presbyterian Hospital.

This will satisfy the highly vocal and annoying chorus of uptown people who constantly gripe that they have absolutely no way to get from the city’s burgeoning basketball district to the medical center without taking a bike, bus, cab, private car or ambulance.

While there is no exact census of the number of people eagerly waiting for this service to begin, I have conducted a personal survey and estimate with authority a population of absolute zero. But, see, this is where I always go wrong.

Transportation is not the point of a streetcar, say those in the know about such things. Streetcars are all about development. They only look like they’re in the transportation business. They’re really in the transformation game.

If you lay down a trolley line, throngs of businesses are going to hustle right over and demand to be located beside it, they say.

Happens all the time. Blighted neighborhood. Million-dollar trolley. Bang! Starbucks. It’s like magic.

Thing is, Charlotte’s streetcar is a money guzzler. When the next phase is done – connecting uptown to Johnson C. Smith University and thus providing destinations that people might actually want to get to – it will cost four times as much to operate the streetcar as the fares are expected to bring in.

Already the city is talking about extra taxes for the businesses along the trolley line to pay for it. That’s counterintuitive to the goal of helping improve the neighborhood with new development.

We’re looking at spending $150 million for the next phase of the line with an annual operating cost of around $6 million. Even though most mass transit is subsidized, this is still going to be a costly project.

It’s going to run a deficit in the millions every year, and it’s not exactly the kind of thing you can pack up and put somewhere else if it doesn’t work out. We’re looking at a commitment that will last for decades.

Will development sprout along the line? Maybe.

That’s a big Maybe, by the way, a multimillion-dollar Maybe.

It seems like for the torrent of money the trolley is going to cost over time, a more cost-effective neighborhood-development program could be considered, such as leaving barrels of cash in the streets for passers-by to lard up on.

This week, the city will be looking at ways to finance the next phase of the trolley. It’s not too late to consider putting the brakes on the whole folly.