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?)

Then Mayor Pro Tem Patrick Cannon spoke at length about how his concerns last year had been dealt with, and that he would support the streetcar proposal as well.

Important note: The vote Tuesday night does not assure that the 2.5-mile streetcar extension will be built. It was a vote to apply for a federal grant and to use certain unspent city funds as a local match. If the Federal Transit Administration doesn't award the grant, then it's back to the drawing board.

Other, slightly less important note: The "streetcar starter project" - a 1.5-mile length along Elizabeth Avenue and East Trade Street - is already under construction. The ultimate streetcar plan would be 10 miles and extend from Beatties Ford Road north of I-85 through uptown and then east to the site of the now-defunct Eastland Mall. The vote Tuesday was to build it from the uptown Transportation Center to just west of Johnson C. Smith University, and east from Presbyterian Hospital (a.k.a. Novant) almost to Central Avenue.

Re Eastland - City Council just voted 10-1 to demolish it. The city owns it, is trying to sell it to developers (two are interested) and neither wants the building. And so passeth the regional shopping mall from the world. At least, from that part of the world.