Editor’s note: The commentary below was written by Dr. Ronald Carter, president, Johnson C. Smith University, and Jim Palermo, executive in residence, Johnson & Wales University.
Sometimes it’s best to take a deep breath and do what’s right. The Charlotte City Council did that when it approved spending $4.5 million to design a streetcar line connecting the city’s east and west sides.
The streetcar can connect Charlotte in many ways, but we’ll start with one dear to us.
The streetcar can forge a tighter bond between Johnson C. Smith University and Johnson & Wales University. We recognize that our institutions, besides being within a mile of each other, share many common traits. We are making impressive progress toward capitalizing on this synergy, yet we wrestle with the underdeveloped patch that separates us. The streetcar fits nicely with goals of the Beatties Ford Road Task Force to revitalize that corridor from Interstate 77 to the JCSU entrance.
Further, the streetcar promises to greatly enhance the ability and inclination of those on our campuses to visit center city and add to its growing vibrancy. It will be much easier for them to volunteer for fun runs, bike rides and other events that benefit worthy causes.
On a larger scale, the streetcar can connect our campuses with Central Piedmont Community College just east of uptown as well as with Presbyterian Hospital and the adjoining medical district.
The full streetcar line runs 10 miles, from the Rosa Parks Transit Center on Beatties Ford Road through center city and out Central Avenue to Eastland Mall. That route can forge a connection between a primary artery for the African-American community and a street that teams with immigrants, many from Latin America and Asia. It also can encourage enhanced majority community contacts that inspire the imagination.
Imagining the ultimate cost of a streetcar line is sobering. It could exceed $400 million, and that is a big reason council members respired deeply.
But it promises to be worth much more. Consider the Lynx Blue Line whose light rail connects center city with Carolina Place Mall. That service cost $462 million. Yet economic development along the 9.6-mile route has blossomed. Estimated tax value of developments within the south corridor tops $550 million and is growing.
The Charlotte Area Transit System finances rail lines with proceeds from a half-cent sales tax and help from Washington and Raleigh. CATS is considering an extension of the Blue Line past the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and possibly a commuter line as far as Mooresville, but it doesn’t have enough money for the streetcar. That project belongs to the city.
Can the city afford it? Yes. Actually, the city already has spent more than $5 million in streetcar-related efforts. Most of that went to Elizabeth Avenue reconstruction in which utilities went underground before anticipatory tracks were laid in asphalt.
There are many streetcar variables. Besides utilities, they involve whether to use overhead wires to power the cars, the type of shelters at stops and how fast new technology might make a difference.
The city might decide to build the line in increments, with the first running from JCSU as far as Presbyterian Hospital. That three-mile route could cost $200 million.
Where would the money come from? Of the options, we like those that don’t entail new taxes. The city could borrow money on projected tax revenue from new development along the line. That development could generate $112 million over 20 years. Other possibilities include help from state and federal governments. The Obama administration favors increased funding for mass transit. The city’s commitment to streetcar planning stands us in good stead to get our share.
Ironing out streetcar details can bring us perhaps our biggest connection. That lies in uniting to educate the entire community on the benefits of the streetcar line and to decide on a plan for building it. A streetcar committee has done laudable work, but the overall process should involve many more people. It must include a cross-section of our city. Streetcar champions must take into account the concerns and aspirations of affected property owners, residents of nearby neighborhoods and just plain interested citizens.
Together, we can make the streetcar a reality by connecting with each other for our common good. It’s the right thing to do.