Streetcar thoughts

Looping back around to the budget debate happening currently in Charlotte, which is increasingly focused on the city’s proposed streetcar line.

When the City Manager Curt Walton’s proposed $926 million capital plan was first rejected, Mayor Anthony Foxx’s response was:

The decision shocked Democratic Mayor Anthony Foxx, who supported the plan. He said the vote was “perhaps the most irresponsible decision in council history,” given that council members offered no alternative after a three-month process.

Foxx later said: “We have just become Washington, folks. Frankly, it’s disgusting.”

The “most irresponsible decision in council history”? Hardly. You could argue for something like Cityfair but to limit things to the recent past, here a couple of items that qualify as extraordinarily irresponsible.

• Approving the NASCAR Hall of Fame with attendance projects that literally were made up.
• The city’s streetcar line. Two largely unrelated problems on this one really: the line itself and the fact that this is a city of Charlotte effort and not part of CATS.

The Charlotte Observer yesterday had an editorial arguing that this wasn’t the time to extend the streetcar line. Highlights:

Streetcar advocates say those neighborhoods could see the same benefits brought by Charlotte’s light rail, which has exceeded ridership expectations and sparked development in South End. But there are critical differences between light rail and streetcar. The latter 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.

The question for council members: Will that coolness factor change ridership enough to convince developers to build along the streetcar’s route? Streetcar supporters point to Portland, Ore., where a four-mile streetcar line brought a reported $3.5 billion worth of new construction. But an analysis this month from the Libertarian Cato Institute found that development mostly sprouted in places where Portland gave developers hundreds of millions of dollars in additional subsidies. According to the report: “Almost no development took place on portions of the streetcar route where developers received no additional subsidies.”

Strong points indeed. The Observer though again doesn’t take the next step and say that the streetcar line is a bad idea in general. Presumably its editorial board thinks it’s a bad idea now in part because we don’t have the hundred of millions of dollars sitting around to throw at developers so they’ll build along our streetcar line.

I’d just call the streetcar a poor use of scarce resources and something that necessarily imposes additional tax burdens on residents who are already heavily taxed.

The other problem is that the streetcar line is a city project and not part of CATS. So we have a dedicated sales tax for transit and a transit line (the streetcar) that isn’t funded by the transit tax. Indeed, the streetcar is at best only a partial substitute for bus service along its route and certainly will compete for riders. And the city has no way to pay for the streetcar except through existing revenue sources, the largest source of which are property taxes.

Michael Lowrey

Michael Lowrey is a contributor to Carolina Journal and a policy analyst for the John Locke Foundation. Lowrey has written numerous articles for the foundation on topics su...