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A streetcar? Meh. 

When I first heard that the city of Charlotte is getting a $25 million federal grant to help build a streetcar "starter line," I reacted the same way as a lot of other folks: Great. We're shredding our school, park and library systems, but there's money for a friggin' streetcar.

That thought, however, came about one full second before I remembered that schools, parks and libraries are the county's responsibilities, not the city's. In other words, that $25 million can't be moved around to hire teachers. And the $12 million the city has set aside to build the "starter line"? That's ostensibly locked up tight, too. So my initial reactions, as well as the similar arguments made daily on the radio, in newspapers, and around water coolers, are beside the point. That won't stop the usual, steady crowd of gripers who always fight anything new for Charlotte, but their arguments are no less irrelevant. My advice to them is to work for consolidation of city and county government, something that's waaay overdue.

But that's in the future. Today, the streetcar's supporters correctly point out that voters approved the plan in 2007, and it's a little late to be raising objections, especially since part of the track has already been installed on Elizabeth Avenue. Others remind critics that new infrastructure projects create much-needed jobs. Still others claim the streetcar line will help people on the west and east sides get downtown quicker, but it's a nonsensical argument, since the same thing could be accomplished by providing better bus service, and, in any case, streetcars won't be introduced in those areas for nearly 20 years.

Some of the strongest support for streetcars comes from planners, architects and academics who subscribe to current thinking on city planning, favor more urban density, and think Charlotte is too sprawled out -- a sentiment nearly everyone can agree with. They see the streetcar line as a key to de-emphasizing sprawl while also promoting growth.

And then there are the potential developers. The pro-streetcar argument that's hardest to refute is a simple recitation of the economic impact similar projects have had on other cities, such as Portland, Ore., or Seattle. Property values have soared near their streetcar lines, and high-density developments along the routes have brought untold millions of dollars.

In other words, the strongest argument being made for a streetcar line is that it will make a lot of money for some people, mostly developers. That's why local developers, traditionally some of the city's biggest string pullers, are nearly wetting themselves over the streetcar -- which, in turn, is why nearly everyone who makes a case for streetcars stresses the development angle. As the Observer noted, in one of those statements that says more than was probably intended, the streetcar isn't just a people-mover, "It's a growth and development strategy."

That's exactly the point where, I feel, a key question lies; a question that, unfortunately, not many people are asking: How would the streetcar line help the local mass transit system fulfill its most basic responsibility, i.e., providing all of us with efficient, convenient ways to get around the city? That is what it's supposed to be about, right? Or is that too much to expect in Charlotte, where profits have so often trumped real public service? Considering the streetcar line's 20-year timeline for completion, any contribution it may make to giving us an efficient, convenient system will be a long time coming. Which naturally brings us to the sorry state of CATS.

It's no secret that Charlotte's transit system is middling at best. Yes, the Lynx is convenient and works well, but it only serves a sliver of the city. Ask anyone who uses local public transportation regularly and you'll hear about long waits, weird connections, the shortage of rain shelters, routes that don't make sense, and too many "blank spots" on the map, where routes are needed but aren't gonna happen anytime soon. Better yet, ask for an opinion of CATS from people who moved here from a city that enjoys a widely used, convenient transit system, and what you'll get are rolling eyes and shaking heads. Anyone who's paying attention knows, or should know, that CATS' subpar service is a problem, yet Charlotte mass transit's mediocrity and, more importantly, the need to actually do something about it, never come up when city leaders talk about public transportation.

Realistically, it's too late in the game to decline the federal streetcar grant and find a way to use the $12 million set-aside, in order to be sure we have a decent transit system for everyone before starting a new, flashy, albeit limited to 10 miles, developer-friendly project.

So we'll get the streetcar line, and I'm sure it'll 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."

For another take on the streetcar issue, check out this week's edition of Citizen Servatius.

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