Opinion: The Gold Line as Repayment of a Debt

The right kind of urban renewal—if Uncle Sam pays half
A Gold Line streetcar on opening day in July.

Before what’s now called the Brookshire Freeway sliced it in half in the 1960s, the area around Johnson C. Smith University was the cultural hub of black Charlotte—home to grocery stores, nightclubs, movie theaters, and schools.

The new highway ripped apart the McCrorey Heights and Biddleville neighborhoods, two of the city’s oldest. In tandem with the razing of the old Brooklyn neighborhood uptown, the road turned the west side into what Harvey Gantt, Charlotte’s first black mayor, has called “the catchment area for people displaced by urban renewal.” It’s a common story for an American city.

Knowing the history helps you understand something that often gets lost in the thunderhead of talk about Charlotte’s Gold Line project—boon versus boondoggle, cost per mile, land acquisition, cost overrruns, ridership levels. Though you won’t find it on anything official, the Gold Line represents a kind of debt repayment to the west side, mature after a half-century.

The project’s second phase would expand the 1.5-mile route that opened in July to four miles total—including two miles from the Transit Center uptown to French Street, two blocks from JCSU. It would cost $150 million, half of which the city hopes it can win through a federal transit grant that hasn’t materialized. Still, the city aims to start construction next fall and have it finished by 2019.

You can see the appeal—the justice—in using the Gold Line to replenish what the west side has lost. One form of transportation tore the west side down. Another can help build it anew. From the perspective of the people it would reach out to, it’s far more than just another mode of publicly funded transportation. “It’s a necessity,” said community activist Mattie Marshall after a CATS public meeting on the Gold Line last month.

I got to thinking about all this in light of what’s happening in Baltimore, where issues familiar to Charlotteans are boiling up to the surface:

The NAACP on Monday filed a federal civil rights complaint against Maryland, alleging that the state discriminated against African American residents in Baltimore when Gov. Larry Hogan killed the Red Line rail project and diverted state money to road and bridge projects elsewhere.

“This is a critical civil rights issue,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “Everyone who knows this city knows that the lack of rapid transit restricts access to jobs and housing for low- and middle-income African American residents living along the city’s east-west corridor.” …

The civil rights complaint could add to simmering tensions between Hogan and city leaders, who have criticized the governor over school funding priorities and his unilateral decisions to close the city’s detention center and cancel the rail line. The filing could also pose a political challenge for Hogan as he tries to balance the needs of heavily Democratic Baltimore — still reeling from last spring’s riots following the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody — with the needs of the rural and suburban areas where most of his supporters live.

Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University, said Hogan’s relationship with Baltimore is not likely to cause trouble for the Republican, given the city’s lessening political clout. “It’s the Washington suburbs that he has to hold on to,” Crenson said.

People with the money to drive wherever they want, and to contribute to mayoral campaigns, tend to do so. People without it rely on public transit and the will of officials who see value in it. Maybe the federal government will come through for Charlotte—Anthony Foxx’s Department of Transportation is making encouraging noises, at least.

But if it doesn’t, Charlotte will have to either find a way to pay for the extended Gold Line through bonds or tax hikes, which would infuriate property owners, or delay the project indefinitely, which would infuriate the folks on the west side who are counting on it. And that would open up a Baltimore-style theater of ugliness, the last thing this city needs.

Categories: The Buzz