Wednesday, July 15, 2015

A chat with the godfather of Charlotte's streetcar

Driver Danny McQueen on Tuesday, awaiting a carload of dignitaries to launch Charlotte's streetcar. The historic replica streetcars now in use would be replaced during the expansion phase with modern streetcars. Photo: Mary Newsom
Before Tuesday morning's ribbon-cutting that launched Charlotte’s new streetcar, it seemed appropriate to check in with Ron Tober. It was Tober who originally proposed adding the streetcar to the larger transit plan for Charlotte. One might even dub him the godfather of the streetcar idea.

Tober was the Charlotte Area Transit System CEO from 1999 to 2007 – the longest-serving CATS chief to date.  The original transit plan, crafted before the 1998 voter referendum that OK’d a transit sales tax, did not include a streetcar. It roughly sketched five corridors: South (now the Lynx Blue Line), North (the still unfunded commuter rail to Mooresville), Northeast (being built as the Blue Line Extension), Southeast (envisioned running roughly down Independence Boulevard), and West possibly to the airport and possibly not.

Other than the South corridor, where the city already owned rail right of way, and the proposed extension to the northeast, it was left unclear in those early days which corridors would get bus rapid transit and which would get light rail. That did not sit well with east and west Charlotte neighborhood championswho clamored for rail service, not bus rapid transit.

In 2004, Tober proposed a streetcar to connect east and west Charlotte. It would run in rails along Beatties Ford Road, through uptown, and out Central Avenue to Eastland Mall, which at that time was open, he reminded me Tuesday morning. The streetcar idea was adopted into the 2006 transit plan update.

Some background: The newly opened 1.5-mile streetcar segment is not funded with the county’s half-cent sales tax for transit. That money goes to the Blue Line, the Blue Line Extension and to run the bus system. Not enough revenue has come in to pay to build more of the 2030 transit plan. (See New CATS chief faces funding questions.) The first streetcar leg was built with a $25 million federal grant and $17 million in funds from the city of
Charlotte.  A hoped-for 2.5-mile expansion would cost $150 million, paid with $75 million in federal dollars and the rest from city money.

My conversation with Tober:

Me: What made you think “streetcar”?

Tober described a process in which CATS planners were studying major investments, and looked at the bus routes with highest ridership: the No. 9 on Central Avenue and the No. 7 on Beatties Ford topped the list, he said.  “So why aren’t we doing something up in there? That was a big question mark for me.”  At a 2002 transit conference he saw a presentation on the then-new Portland, Ore., streetcar. He saw that a streetcar could spur development, potentially reduce operating expenses because it carries more riders per trip, and create connectivity between east and west Charlotte. “That was the rationale.”

Me: Why’d it take so long to build the streetcar?

Tober: “Money.”
Art at the streetcar shelters along East Trade Street.

Me:  Did you suspect the sales tax should have been higher?

Tober: “I really thought the half-cent would be enough.”  The 2009 economic downturn was more severe than anyone projected, he said. That threw off the revenue projections for years.

Me: Compare operating expenses – not cost to build – between buses and a streetcar. (Streetcars run in the street, with traffic, unlike light rail which has its own dedicated lane or rail path.)

Tober: Because a streetcar has higher capacity you can reduce the frequency, which saves labor costs for drivers. Seventy percent of CATS’ budget is labor. But CATS wouldn’t notice any big changes in operating costs until it could convert all of bus route 7 and 9 to streetcar.  That would also eliminate the layover time at the transportation center uptown.

We walked over to the Transportation Center on East Trade Street, where the roar of the bus engines and hissing of brakes made for a gritty – and noisy – series of speeches by dignitaries, including U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, who as Charlotte mayor had championed the still-controversial streetcar.  Tuesday, even some streetcar skeptics and opponents were on hand for the celebration. Tober stood quietly, almost unnoticed, in the crowd.