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Home / News / Construction and Real Estate / Betting on the Gold Line: Charlotte officials have bet millions the streetcar will be golden, but need to keep it on track

Betting on the Gold Line: Charlotte officials have bet millions the streetcar will be golden, but need to keep it on track

CHARLOTTE – Streetcars are the hottest mode of public transportation in the U.S. at the moment.

The first phase of the streetcar is set to open in March. The line will run from Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center to the Charlotte Transit Center. Photo by Payton Guion.

The first phase of the streetcar is set to open in March. The line will run from Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center to the Charlotte Transit Center. Photo by Payton Guion.

The Transit Politic, a transit watchdog blog, reports that there are 32 streetcar projects in the U.S. either in planning or under construction. Some of those projects are another line of an existing system – like in Seattle – while others are brand new systems – like in Charlotte.

The streetcar is an interesting piece of public transportation. It’s cheaper than heavy-rail or light-rail systems and more permanent than bus routes. The expense makes it easier for local governments to stomach, while the permanence encourages developers to loosen their purse strings.

But that combination doesn’t always equate to sweet arithmetic when put to practice. Some systems prove a viable transit line, with billions spent along their routes in housing and community development, such as in Portland., Ore.

Others have seen little investment and have ended up as not much more than a novelty.

And Charlotte – which is months away from opening the $37 million first phase of its streetcar line – is out to avoid its streetcar becoming a novelty and must attract riders and serious investment along the line; even while much work remains.


First the framework

Art Guzetti, vice president of policy at the American Public Transportation Association, said success with a streetcar line is about getting people around within cities.

“You don’t build a streetcar for a suburb-to-city type of commute,” Guzetti said. “It’s more a way of circulating around urban areas. Many that have been built in the country are to connect downtown to areas where people go to have fun.

“They give the community a sense of vitality. Mobility is important, but you can create an economic spark if you can create a sense of place in a city.”

The first phase of the CityLynx Gold Line – the city’s official name for the streetcar – is scheduled to start running down Elizabeth Avenue and Trade Street, from Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center to the Charlotte Transit Center, in March, said Tonia Wimberly, a senior project manager with the city.

Along that mile-and-a-half line, there is little sense of place directly tied to the installation of streetcar track. Elizabeth Avenue has some restaurants, but they’ve been there for a few years. Between Hawthorne Lane and Charlottetowne Avenue, Elizabeth Avenue has some land for development, but nothing has taken shape to this point.

Following the track northwest, next up is Central Piedmont Community College, which will be an important neighbor for the streetcar but offers little room for additional development. Heading northwest still, the tracks pass over the Little Sugar Creek Greenway and underneath Interstate 277, still with little land for additional development.

The tracks then head into Uptown, where there is some land for development or buildings for redevelopment, but nothing has been done. As the future streetcar approaches the Charlotte Transit Center, the development opportunities diminish as the landscape becomes denser.

Brad Richardson, the city’s economic development director, said the idea of development associated with the streetcar was never that the first phase was going to provide the bulk of that development.

“There’s not a lot of development activity here (in Uptown) related to the streetcar,” Richardson said. “It happens on the subsequent phases. The framework is a new transportation mode, one that is fixed.”


Development follows

Fixed public transportation, meaning that infrastructure is actually put into the ground, is a crucial facet of such transit. When developers see streets being dug up to accommodate a system that can’t be moved or rerouted, they know that’s an area a city is committed to and an area that will have people passing potential businesses daily.

Elizabeth Avenue has had streetcar tracks for several years, but not a lot of development to accompany the coming streetcar. Photo by Payton Guion

Elizabeth Avenue has had streetcar tracks for several years, but not a lot of development to accompany the coming streetcar. Photo by Payton Guion

The streetcar system in Portland, Ore., is the archetype of a system that attracted commercial development along its tracks. Within the first 10 years the Portland streetcar was in operation, $3.5 billion in development and 10,000 residential units had been put in place within 750 feet of the tracks, according to Portland Streetcar Inc., the corporation that runs the system. Between 1998 and 2008, 53 percent of all center city development in Portland was within 250 feet of the streetcar line

The Charlotte Area Transit System, which will run the Gold Line, doesn’t have any figures for development along the line. But that also is due to the fact that the track hasn’t been laid out completely and that operations won’t start for another nine months. And, as Richardson said, much more development is expected along the second phase of the streetcar than the first.

That idea makes sense at first. The second phase will go 2 miles west, out to Johnson C. Smith University, and will pass through areas that have been underdeveloped over the years – exactly the kind of neighborhoods that could be revitalized by having a permanent public transportation system. The line will also extend a half-mile east from Hawthorne Lane to Sunnyside Avenue.

“Beatties Ford Road is the primary corridor it’s going down and that has been a priority for City Council for at least a decade,” Richardson said. “What we hear from that community is more retail, restaurants and higher-quality development. All of the higher-quality retail follows housing development.

“You’re looking for higher quality and diverse housing options, which is what the streetcar could catalyze.”

Sounds good for the Gold Line, but there is no guarantee that the second phase will happen any time soon, if at all. All the first phase needs to get moving is for the tracks to be finished and the route to be tested.

All the second phase needs is almost everything: funding, and then everything else included in construction and development. To fund the project, CATS will need to receive some federal grant money. In 2013, the project was denied federal money.

Officials from Charlotte Area Transit System last year put together an application requesting $24 million in federal grant money from the U.S. Department of Transportation to assist in the development and construction of the second phase of the Gold Line.

But not a cent was set aside for the streetcar when the DOT in September announced the transportation projects across the country that were to share in the $474 million awarded in TIGER funding. TIGER is an acronym for Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery


CATS turns eyes elsewhere

Later this year, CATS will look past TIGER to another source of federal money, and because it has already made it past the first cut in a 2014 federal grant application process, the organization is more confident in its chances of getting the necessary funding to start the second phase construction.

David McDonald, CATS project manager for the streetcar’s second phase, said the Gold Line project was always a long shot last year to get any TIGER money. The preliminary design of the second phase was only 30 percent complete and many contingencies remained in the budget. Basically, CATS didn’t know exactly how much Phase 2 was going to cost, which diminished its chances of tapping into those funds.

Of 585 nationwide projects that applied for the funding – which had estimated projected costs totaling about $9 billion – only 52 projects got the $474 in 2013 TIGER grant funding, according to the DOT. Susan Hendricks, deputy press secretary of the U.S. DOT, said less than 9 percent of projects seeking TIGER funding actually received that money.

“With the TIGER money, we were up against a much larger pool of applicants for a much smaller pool of money,” McDonald said. “Instead (of TIGER funding) we want to submit a Small Starts application to FTA by early September.”

Before applying for the Small Starts grant, CATS must advance the design from 30 percent to 65 percent. McDonald said getting the design to 65 percent complete will take much of the guesswork out of establishing a working budget and moving forward on the project.

If CATS were to be approved for federal funding later this year, construction on the second phase of the Gold Line could start as soon as the beginning of 2016. McDonald said that if that happens, it would take three years before the streetcar would be rolling through west Charlotte.

Long-range transit planning has the Gold Line going out in the other direction all the way to the former Eastland Mall site, but McDonald and Wimberly agree that it will be quite a while before that happens. Right now they’re focused on getting the first phase rolling and getting the second phase funded. And they’re looking to other cities for examples of how to run and develop a successful streetcar.

“We’re trying to learn from everyone that’s gone ahead of us,” McDonald said. “Everyone points to Portland, but we also look at other cities, including Toronto, Little Rock, (Ark.); Salt Lake City. We’re trying to learn from successes and mistakes.”




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