Toy Train to Nowhere?

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Developers were supposed to flock to the South Boulevard light rail line. But this week, Bank of America announced it was backing out of its planned development of the Scaleybark Station, despite millions of dollars in direct and indirect subsidies thrown in by Charlotte Area Transit System and the city to sweeten the deal.

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The small stumble for the South Boulevard line has enormous implications for rail in Charlotte.

Though no one wants to cop to this publicly, none of the other planned lines are likely to qualify for the federal funding CATS needs to bring them to life because the areas they run through lack the density needed to support them. Unless the federal government changes its density standards, which doesn't look likely any time soon, the other lines simply won't qualify. (Federal funding covered half the cost of the $463 million South Boulevard light rail line.)

So Huntersville and Davidson residents are touting a hair-brained scheme to fund their line, which would haul only 4,000 commuters according to the most rosy projections. According to the scheme, developers are going to pay the difference through some sort of tax increment financing where future additional tax dollars generated by development along the rail line fund at least half its cost.

So here's a question I bet the light rail booster can't answer. If Bank of America struggled with a station development on more valuable land near uptown, a development that was already being subsidized by taxpayers, how the heck are developers going to be able to afford to subsidize a rail line up north?

If we get no federal money for the rest of these lines, we'll face one of two choices. Either pass another half or quarter cent sales tax for transit, of accept that our rail line will never be more than nine miles long. Without those connections, the transit center CATS is building uptown will be damn near useless, and so will the line if it connects to nowhere. What we will have built, essentially, will be a half-billion dollar shuttle to more affordable parking just outside the center city. But hell, it's just money.


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