Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Streetcar wins key council vote

Amid poetry, passion and multiple standing ovations, the Charlotte City Council voted 7-4 Tuesday to move ahead with applying for a federal grant to extend the Charlotte streetcar route another 2.5 miles.

It was one of the best evenings of political theater I've watched in recent years. At-large council members Beth Pickering and later Patrick Cannon drew sustained applause from a street-car loving audience when Pickering and then Cannon announced in support of the proposal. Both had voted a year ago against including the streetcar expansion project in the city's long-range capital program.

But new City Manager Ron Carlee and his staff came back with a different proposal, which wouldn't put the streetcar into the city's capital program, and so wouldn't use property taxes to fund it.

In an election year, with Cannon already an announced mayoral candidate, the many passionate audience members from East and West Charlotte who spoke in favor of the streetcar might have had an effect. (Mattie Marshall quoted Langston Hughes: "What happens to a dream deferred?")

It's worth noting that Pickering, a Democrat, won her council seat in 2011 as a newcomer to local politics, coming in fourth for four at-large seats in a heavy Democratic turnout spurred by Mayor Anthony Foxx's re-election. For a Democrat without huge name recognition to anger the heavily Democratic West Charlotte AND the Democratic-leaning East Charlotte neighborhoods could be a huge political problem.

"All things considered, my No. 1 priority is to revitalize the East and West sides," Pickering said, as she announced her support. Because only one vote change was needed to switch last year's 6-5 vote against, her announcement meant the streetcar proposal would pass.

Amid sustained applause, the as-of-late seldom seen mayor walked into the chamber. Foxx, nominated to be U.S. Transportation secretary, has taken a low-profile role in recent weeks. (Question to ponder: Would he have joined the meeting if the streetcar vote were going the other way?)

Streetcar, trolley or light rail?

How many times do you hear people say they love the light rail line in Charlotte but they don't want a trolley. By which they mean a streetcar. If you know much about transit systems, that sentence may strike you as nonsense. A streetcar does not equal a trolley, although some streetcars may be trolleys. Trolleys typically run in the street, but not always.

Terminology is obscuring the public debate.

I'm sitting at Charlotte City Council meeting awaiting their votes on a couple of items: Whether to apply for a federal grant to extend the already-begun 1.5-mile streetcar project, and whether to spend almost $900,000 to demolish the now-city-owned Eastland Mall, a defunct regional shopping mall on Charlotte' East Side.

So I took advantage of the attendance of Ron Tober, former CEO of the Charlotte Area Transit System, former executive director of the nonprofit group Charlotte Trolley Inc., and current consultant with Parsons Brinckerhoff. He has worked on transit systems all over the country, from heavy rail (which does NOT mean intercity passenger rail; it means it has a third rail, which is electrified, as in subways, and deadly to touch, as in "Social Security is the third rail of American politics"), to light rail to commuter rail to streetcars to trolleys.

1. What is a "trolley"? 
Tober: The term trolley is used for a historic (or faux historic) car that runs on rails and is fed by an overhead electric wire.

2. Are streetcars and trolleys the same?
Tober: Not if they use modern cars. Trolleys can run in the street or on dedicated tracks.
In other words, streetcar systems such as Portland's or Seattle's are fed by overhead electric wires, but aren't "trolley" systems as the term is generally used in the transit-building world.

3. If the Lynx used old-timey-looking cars, would it then be a trolley?
Tober: Yes.

So there you are. To say Charlotte's proposed streetcars would "waddle" down the street is true only if the cars are unstable. Which the Federal Transit Administration won't allow.

To save money, for the early 1.5-mile streetcar starter project now under construction, the city plans to use the faux historic streetcars purchased originally to run on the Lynx tracks, part of the now-comatose Charlotte Trolley nonprofit group's pre-Lynx-line project that ran a historic and then the faux-historic cars along what's now the Lynx rails.

So you will see historic-ish cars running on overhead electric wires, along Elizabeth Avenue and East Trade Street. That will be both a streetcar and a trolley.

But when the envisioned modern cars arrive for the envisioned streetcar project -- whenever or if that happens -- it won't be a "trolley" line any more. It will be a modern streetcar.

Monday, May 13, 2013

New city manager, new streetcar plan?

Will a new name, a new tie-in to the county’s overall transit plan, and a new funding scheme using no property tax money mean a new outcome that puts an expanded streetcar project into the “yes” column with the Charlotte City Council? (see my article  at PlanCharlotte.org).

(Other news coverage from Erik Spanberg of the Charlotte Business Journal is here, and from the Charlotte Observer's Steve Harrison  here. For those of you who don't get the print edition, Harrison's article was splashed in a major way atop the front page.)

Among the many questions yet to be answered:

Changing minds? Will any of the six council members who last year opposed the streetcar change their minds, now that it's being paid for without property taxes and will, presumably, have the blessing of the Metropolitan Transit Commission? Council member Patrick Cannon, who is expected to run for mayor, told me those two things make it easier for him to support the streetcar.  Note, however, he did not give an unequivocal "Yes, I'll support it."

Thumb on scale at USDOT? Would having Mayor Anthony Foxx running the U.S. Department of Transportation (he's been nominated but not yet confirmed) increase the chances of the streetcar winning federal transit funding, from either the New Starts or the Small Starts pots of funds?

New name? As new (since April 1) City Manager Ron Carlee told the council Monday night, "The streetcar is not a toy...." By renaming it the CityLynx Gold Line the city hopes to make the point that it's just one part of the larger transit system strategy. Memo to city: The new name is TOO LONG.

Carlee, city staff, and the CEO of the Charlotte Area Transit System, Carolyn Flowers, teamed to give a presentation Monday night at the council’s dinner meeting, signaling a new approach to the controversial streetcar proposal. Last June, the council’s disagreements over the streetcar helped scuttle a larger proposal for a five-year capital projects plan.

Carlee said he thought the streetcar expansion project – adding 2.5 miles to an already-funded 1.5-mile streetcar “starter” project – would compete well for federal funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation.