Streetcar 'starter kit' OK'd

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Last night, City Council narrowly approved taking the $25 million federal grant to, in effect, build a streetcar starter kit. The vote for the skip-and-a-jump-length line was 6-5, a far cry from the former, financially flush days when any project deemed “good fuh Shah-lut” by Uptown’s powers-that-be was dutifully rubberstamped by Council.

Supporters of the streetcar line rightfully emphasize that it will stimulate development along its planned route: initially 1.5 miles by 2014, and a full 10 miles by the time Deep Space Nine was supposed to take place. Opponents say the streetcar is a frill during hard times, and would eat up money that could be used for other city needs — although no one is too specific about what those other needs would be.

The problem with the “stimulate development” argument is the same problem we see in the streetcar opponents’ “other city needs” line of reasoning: neither argument has anything to do with providing all of us with efficient, convenient ways to get around the city. Which, of course, is supposed to be the fundamental reason for public transit. You know, “public service”? You may have heard of it. Public transit can, indeed, be a magnet for development, but that’s a side effect of what should be the prime consideration: serving the public by running an effective public transportation system. And yes, the city could use the $12 million already set aside for the streetcar for other needs, but, apparently, making our public transit more effective isn’t one of the needs streetcar opponents have in mind.

As we mentioned in a recent column, talk about transit shouldn’t always revolve around how many developers can make how many dollars from it. The most important question about the streetcar, to us, is still “How would it help the local mass transit system fulfill its most basic responsibilities to the public?” The obvious answer — particularly considering how long the entire line will take to finish — is, “It won’t.” Considering the mediocre-at-best state of this area’s mass transit, that $12 million would have found better use as a way to ensure that we have a decent transit system for everyone, before starting a new, flashy, albeit short, developer-friendly project.

Part of the problem, too, is the divided nature of local government. The county ostensibly runs the transit system, so City Council can almost be forgiven for only seeing the streetcar as a development strategy. Almost, but not quite. The city managed to pony up big bucks to help the county’s library system, which was a good thing. Considering recent cuts to CATS’ budget, perhaps the county’s public transit should be viewed by City Council with the same sense of urgency. Or better yet, how about really, really getting around to consolidating the two governments? It’ll help everyone focus more clearly on what issues are important to the public and which aren’t.

In the meantime, we'll get our Streetcar Starter Kit, which is an appropriate name for the project, considering that the city will use the dinky imitatioun trolley cars that may as well have been made from Legos -- and which not enough people were interested in riding to keep them solvent.

Lego streetcar, at your service
  • Lego streetcar, at your service

I'm sure the streetcar will no doubt do all the wonderful things for urban density and developers’ pockets that are being promised. However, urban density, satisfied developers, and a cool streetcar line don’t do much for people whose bus routes have been cut. Nor, for that matter, do they do much for anyone who, like many I’ve spoken with, would like to use mass transit regularly, but find that Charlotte’s system is, as one woman from Chicago put it, “So lame, you’d think they didn’t really know what a decent transit system is supposed to do.”

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