Project managers to discuss streetcar progress with public

By Jeff Atkinson - bio l email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Project managers of the streetcar project will hold a series of public meetings over the next couple weeks to keep the public informed on the progress of the project.

The project has been widely debated even as work continues. Some of the tracks are laid, now the feds come through with big money to get the first cars rolling.

The project was once in doubt.  Now, the federal government is helping fund the first leg, a $25 million grant to complete the first mile and a half stretch.  The tracks already run up and down most of Elizabeth Avenue.

Soon, the streetcars will be too - back and forth between the Transit Center near the Time Warner Cable Arena - southeast to Presbyterian Hospital.

It's surely exciting news, but a mile and a half isn't exactly a great transportation option for most of us.

But it's a major step forward city leaders say in a transit system they want to expand on and a catalyst they hope for economic development.

Charlotte beat out 59 other cities for the federal cash, which was awarded on Thursday.  And it returns the city to its roots.

"Boom, boom, boom."

That's the sound of revitalization.  It's what city leaders point to when they say it's what they hope the streetcar will do.

The building's getting a major makeover, gutted and turned into a beauty school and salon.  And where is it?  On Elizabeth Avenue, where tracks have been laid for Charlotte's new streetcar.

At a news conference at the Government Center on Thursday, city leaders were celebrating receiving a $25 million grant from the feds to get the project on track.

"This grant will allow our city to take the first step in bringing the street car back," says Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx.

And it almost didn't happen.  CATS relinquished responsibility to the city.  And the streetcar project survived a mayor's veto and a host of skeptics.

Charlotte began as a streetcar community.  In 1891 a car ran from Trade and Tryon out to the city's first suburbs, Dilworth.  Now 120 years later, it's coming back around.

"We have to continue to develop alternative forms of transportation if we're going to improve our air quality, reduce congestion and keep this a great place to live," says Jennifer Roberts, chair of the Metropolitan Transit Commission.

The streetcar is part of an over plan to bring mass transit throughout Charlotte-Mecklenburg.  The line itself is expected to eventually run from Rosa Parks Place on Beatties Ford Road in west Charlotte through Center City east out to Eastland Mall - a total of ten miles.

It's money for the first mile and a half - through downtown that was received today.  It will be added to $12 million in local dollars the city has already set aside.

"There are no moves that we're going to make as a community in the next 50 years that are going to be more transformative than our investments in transit," says Michael Smith, CEO of Charlotte Center City Partners.

Anticipating federal money coming in the city's already laid a half mile of track in the street where the cars will run along Elizabeth Avenue through the CPCC campus.  Constructing the rest - a one mile section - is set to begin in about a year and a half.

To save money the city plans to bring out of retirement the three trolley cars that ran where the LYNX Blue Line goes now.

Workers believe the project will bring jobs and investment.

"I'm glad Charlotte received the money because economically it will help the economy. So I'm glad they're bringing the trolley to Charlotte to downtown," says Earl Calloway of Charlotte.

But critics balk the price.  They point out the streetcar will run where buses run now.  And to build out the 10-mile streetcar system is going to cost as much as a half-billion dollars, though the city's hoping it'll mostly be federal dollars.

So what's the attraction, why build it then?

Supporters would tell you couple things.  It's our affinity with trains, you'll get people on a train who would never get on a bus.

Streetcars run on electricity; we can reduce our carbon footprint.

And economic development.  Supporters think they can get businesses to locate in the corridor of the streetcar line.

The first leg of the project is scheduled to be completed in the early part of 2014.

Tuesday's meeting with project managers is from 6-8pm at the Memorial United Methodist Church.

Two other meetings are scheduled for Thursday from 6-8pm at Johnson C. Smith University Gambrell Auditorium and October 5 at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center, also from 6-8pm.

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