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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

CATS seeks $25-million grant for streetcar

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Charlotte, N.C., is going to ask the federal government for $25 million to help build a streetcar line uptown, The Charlotte Observer reports. The City Council voted 7-4 Jan. 25 to apply for a grant that would pay for much of a 1.5-mile line from the Charlotte Transportation Center to Presbyterian Hospital on Hawthorne Drive in the Elizabeth neighborhood. If successful, the city would need to spend at least $12 million of its own money to finish construction.

The Charlotte Area Transit System's long-term transit plan calls for a 10-mile streetcar line from Beatties Ford Road to Eastland Mall via uptown. The line's entire cost has been estimated at between $450 and $500 million -- roughly the same cost as the Lynx light-rail line from uptown south to I-485. The challenge has been finding money to pay for it.

CATS doesn't have the money. The Federal Transit Administration has historically not funded streetcars, though the Obama administration recently changed that rule and released some money for streetcars. The maximum one city could receive is $25 million.

"For every local dollar that goes into the grant, we get two federal dollars back," said Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx, a Democrat whose campaigned for mayor last year advocated a streetcar line.

The city of Charlotte stepped up its streetcar quest two years ago. The service would begin at the Charlotte Transportation Center near the Time Warner Cable Arena. It would go south down Trade Street and link with streetcar tracks already in place on Elizabeth Avenue to Presbyterian Hospital. The line would have a small loop around the arena to tie into the light-rail tracks. That would allow streetcars to be stored at the light-rail maintenance facility south of the New Bern light-rail station.

The city estimates it would handle 950 trips a day based on bus ridership on the segment today. By comparison, the multi-car, 9.6-mile Lynx handles 14,000-15,000 passenger trips a day.

One downside to the starter streetcar line is that it wouldn't replace any existing routes. That means the Charlotte Area Transit System would continue to operate existing service like the Gold Rush, and someone -- either CATS or the city -- would have to pay for the streetcar's estimated $1.5 million annual operating cost. Assistant City Manager Jim Schumacher said it's unknown whether CATS or the city would pay for the operating costs.

The $37 million cost also doesn't include buying new trolleys. One option is to use three replica streetcars that the non-profit Charlotte Trolley uses through South End.

"We don't have to buy cars," said Mayor Pro Tem Susan Burgess, a Democrat who voted to seek the grant. "That buys us time. Everything is coming together."

City Manager Curt Walton has identified $24 million that could be used for the streetcar. He has proposed spending $2.5million set aside for engineering and design of the streetcar. He also has tapped $10.5 million set aside for economic development, $4 million from "smart growth" funds and $7 million from a business corridor revitalization fund.

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