Monday, June 25, 2012

Is a streetcar speedy? And other red herrings

Courtesy Charlotte Area Transit System
Here's the thing about the proposed Charlotte streetcar expansion, the one the City Council today is probably going to pitch from the city's five-year capital improvements plan. A streetcar is not only about speedy transportation. To judge it from that point of view is to miss the point almost entirely.

A streetcar is about economic development and trying to buttress the city's tax base. Which, let me point out, grew only about 7 percent overall 2003-2011, with a frighteningly high proportion of the city's acreage seeing declining home property values, not rising ones. (See map at end.)

That point seems to be lost amid debate about streetcar speed and the fact that it stops at traffic lights. Even my former colleagues at the Charlotte Observer's editorial board seem to be assessing the streetcar's value by whether it's faster than driving, as in Sunday's editorial, "Now is not the time to take streetcar ride,"  which pooh-poohs the proposed 2.2-mile extension of the streetcar's Phase I, a 1.5-mile segment due to start construction at the end of the year. The streetcar, it says, "would operate on regular streets, stopping for red lights and traffic congestion. It wouldn’t be faster than a bus. It would merely be a very expensive, but very pretty, bus. What the city is buying is an aesthetic."

But lost in that analysis, and in remarks by some that a streetcar is just a toy, is this: Development reacts to streetcars very differently from the way it reacts to bus routes.

Cities all over the country have built or are building streetcars and seeing them lure development. These are not all big places like Seattle, which has seen revitalization along its South Lake Union  streetcar. They're places like Little Rock, Ark., where North Little Rock has benefited from streetcar-induced development.

If streetcars are just silly aesthetics, then a whole lot of cities are being scammed, including Tampa, Dallas, Denver, Tucson, Philadelphia and, yes, Little Rock, all of which have streetcars operating. Cities with streetcar lines under construction include Atlanta, Cincinnati and expansions in Seattle, Tucson, New Orleans and Portland, Ore.

Cities with streetcars planned but not yet built (although in some cases already funded) include Oklahoma City, Phoenix, Sacramento, San Antonio and Fort Lauderdale.

Illogical though it may seem, people are more willing to ride public transportation on rails than city buses. I know people who'll drive 10 or 15 minutes to park and ride the Lynx light rail to uptown Charlotte, driving past multiple bus stops on the way.

And not just riders are lured. Rail transportation brings development in a way buses don't. After all, city buses ran regularly up and down South Boulevard for years, and still do, but development didn't blossom in what's South End until the nonprofit Charlotte Trolley ran a demonstration project along the rail line that today holds the Lynx.

Johnson C. Smith University president Ron Carter got it right in his piece in today's Observer,
Streetcar would bring critical development to westside.

So love it or hate it, the streetcar should be debated based on what it would do for development, not as if its only role is to convey people along a city street. We could debate the value of trying to catalyze development along Beatties Ford Road versus other city areas, such as uptown (where the city just offered up almost $8 million in public money for a baseball stadium and the county some $28 million in similar subsidies).   Others may simply think now is not the time to build a streetcar, or they may not like the way it's funded. Those are legitimate debate points.

Would Charlotte see the development other cities have? Why or why not? How would today's development climate affect things?  Is  the long-term streetcar route, planned before the death of Eastland Mall, still appropriate? For a map, click here. Is the funding City Manager Curt Walton proposed, paying for the streetcar the way the city pays for its street and road projects, appropriate? Some cities have used a combination of funding tools, such as public-private partnerships, municipal parking deck revenues and special tax districts.

Legitimate questions. Too bad so many people are focused, instead, on stoplights and speed.


Map of city single-family property valuations 2003-2011, is below:
(For a slightly larger view, click on the image.)

And click here to see my interview this morning on Fox News Rising, discussing the streetcar.