In Defense of the Gold Line

Ready to take a wrecking ball to the streetcar? Pump the brakes
Charlotte Area Transit System

Opponents of Charlotte’s streetcar project have had a great time lately.

The CityLYNX Gold Line began running on its initial 1.5-mile track on July 14, which resurrected the same arguments we’ve heard for years: It costs too much. The city will eventually have to raise taxes to pay for it. Even when it’s built out at God knows what cost, it’ll be a train to nowhere. Cars are more efficient. Feet are more efficient.

Republican Mayoral candidate Scott Stone appears to be making the streetcar the primary symbol of his campaign against the runaway spending of the City Council on unnecessary trifles. And four days into the Gold Line’s run, a gift from the transit gods: An operator forgot to switch controls from one end of the trolley car to the other, and it hit an SUV on Elizabeth Avenue.

So, yeah, not a great start for the Gold Line.

But pump the brakes. (Sorry. Had to.) Take a few steps back. Think long-term. Think about the city as a whole, where and how it’s growing, and where and how it’s not.

The central idea behind the Gold Line is this: East and west Charlotte, where the streetcar will eventually run, are economic deserts. They will remain that way without something to boost development there, and bus lines and sidewalk improvements are not likely to cut it. The private sector won’t do it on its own without some significant public investment to make their private investment worth the trouble.

Also, the city has managed to keep its property tax rate halfway reasonable by annexing land and pulling tax money from it. But Charlotte is out of land to annex. The only other option is to make the land it already has more valuable.

So people who complain about how slow the streetcar is, how a car or even a 25-year-old in running shoes can beat it in a race, are missing the point. The more stops it makes, the more accessible it is for people with limited access to any kind of transportation, and the more incentive it provides for developers to invest in parts of Charlotte that desperately need it. If anyone has any better ideas for revitalizing east and west Charlotte, I haven’t heard them.

Yes, it’s going to take forever to build. It’ll cost more than city officials think. (Large public projects always do.) You’re going to see some more fender-benders. People will continue to point and laugh, then climb into their Lexus SUVs and drive away.

And a generation or two from now, we’ll wonder how the city ever got along without it.

Categories: By Greg Lacour, Poking the Hornet’s Nest