NC: Charlotte Makes $12M Bet on Streetcar

Jan. 28--To improve its chances of landing a federal grant, the Charlotte City Council voted 8-3 Monday night to spend up to $12 million on engineering work for a 2.5-mile streetcar extension.

Extending the streetcar, one of the region's most controversial transportation projects, is expected to cost $126 million. It would span Johnson C. Smith University to the west and the Elizabeth neighborhood to the east.

Last year, City Manager Ron Carlee broke a yearlong deadlock over the project with a proposal to spend $63 million from city reserves and to seek $63 million in federal grants. That plan wouldn't use property taxes, and it helped convince some council members -- including Patrick Cannon, who is now mayor -- to vote for it.

Carlee has since argued the city must spend some of that $63 million now to show the Federal Transit Administration the project is viable. He said the city has always had to spend some money upfront for previous transit projects, including the Lynx Blue Line and its extension to University City.

The city was turned down for a federal grant for the streetcar extension last year. It has applied again for a Small Starts grant. It hopes to be awarded the grant from the Federal Transit Administration in 2015.

The risk is that if the city is rejected again for the grant, the $12 million for engineering work could be wasted.

"There is a chance that we won't get" the grant, said Republican Ed Driggs, who voted against the funding along with Republican Kenny Smith and Democrat Michael Barnes. "We will have spent $12 million towards this goal and not know how to proceed."

Smith said people would "scratch their heads" over the decision to spend the $12 million.

Several dozen residents came to Monday's meeting in support of the streetcar.

Former council member Billy Maddalon, a member of the Eastland Area Strategies Team, said the city must do what it takes to win the federal grants.

"Without the grants, it will not happen," he said.

Democrat Al Austin, whose northwest Charlotte district includes part of the streetcar route, said if Charlotte wants to be a "global city" it needs "multiple transportation options."

At-large member Vi Lyles, a Democrat, said the city must "put some money in ... to win."

Democratic at-large member Claire Fallon had voted against the streetcar in the past. She supported it Monday.

She said she wanted to do all she could to help the city win the $63 million grant.

"This is a one-time thing," Fallon said.

Charlotte is currently building a small "starter" streetcar line from Time Warner Cable Arena to Presbyterian Hospital. That $37 million project was funded in part by a $25 million federal grant.

The long-term plan is to build a 10-mile streetcar line from Beatties Ford Road to the site of the old Eastland Mall.

Former Mayor Anthony Foxx is now U.S. secretary of transportation, which oversees the FTA. Foxx, who championed the streetcar as mayor, recused himself from all Charlotte-related issues for at least a year. That recusal expires in July.

In other action, council members approved the first major construction contract for the Lynx Blue Line extension, from uptown to University City.

Balfour Beatty Infastructure/Blythe Development Co. will be paid $108 million to work on the first segment of the light-rail extension, from uptown to Old Concord Road.

The joint venture will work on improving drainage, building bridges, taking care of retaining walls, controlling traffic, and moving water and sewer mains.

CATS chief executive Carolyn Flowers said the $108 million is $9 million less than the city had budgeted.

When the city built the original light-rail line, one contractor -- Archer-Western -- built almost the entire project. The Charlotte Area Transit System plans to bid the $1.1 billion light-rail extension in several pieces, allowing different contractors to work.

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