News: Charlotte Exclusives

Toy Train Costs Charlotte Real Money

What if it the trolley was never meant to be cost-effective?

One way or another, 2005 is shaping up as a watershed year for Charlotte light rail hopes and dreams. The exact extent of federal contribution to the project should be nailed down. Local residents may also finally get to see just what their millions of dollars in extra sales tax have bought them besides constantly changing cost estimates.

There is even, shall we say, a good bit of drama built into the process given recent revelations. It turns out that after spending $40 million on the uptown trolley, up from the original estimate of $19 million, the city will have to mothball the trolley for six months at the end of 2005 while the South End light rail segment is under construction. Let’s reflect on this.

The trolley just started regular weekday service and despite low weekday ridership, Charlotte Area Transit System officials said that would improve over time. Turns out that time is rather short. Once service is suspended, copious uptown signage for the trolley will have to countered by an ad campaign telling people that, no, in fact, there is no trolley service right now, try back in a few months. And once the light rail line is up and running in 2006 or 2007, the trolley will again be relegated to off-peak and weekend runs.

So for $40 million plus costs associated with the service suspension, the city bought a system that will have run full time for only about 15 months. Does that make sense? It does if the trolley was intended only to serve as a stalking horse for light rail up and down the South Blvd. corridor. For one, the trolley introduced the notion of stopping traffic to allow a rail car to pass, and this practice may soon come in handy for CATS.

Consider that it certainly looks like the light rail line will be pushed to stay within its current $400 million budget. In fact, $420 million is the number now making unofficial rounds with $450 million not out of the question. One of the few ways to save money on the 10-mile project is to remove costly train bridges at intersections. The project could then have at-grade train crossings at some combination of Archdale, Arrowood, Scaleybark or Tyvola roads.

Take a look at a map and ask yourself what stopping rush-hour traffic every 15 minutes for the rail line would do to congestion in that part of Charlotte. Then consider what all those idling cars would do for auto emissions, a topic which county and city leaders still obsess over. And what of North Carolina Department of Transportation safety concerns over mixing cars and rains along South Blvd.? Any way you look at it, at-grade crossings would be an absolute disaster for the city.

So how will CATS try to sell them, if they must? Try the recent experience with the trolley and vehicular traffic. City and county leaders, not to mention the general public, will be told that just as trolley runs did not hamper traffic, neither will the light rail line.

Then, with this rhetorical mission accomplished, the trolley will have finally served its intended $40 million purpose.