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Implications of the streetcar to nowhere 

Most people probably don't think of the controversial Charlotte streetcar as a racial issue, but that's pretty much what it was.

The streetcar, the first mile-long leg of which will cost $37 million, has never really been a high priority for the Uptown crowd. It wasn't even on the list of expensive transit priorities sold to the public along with the half-cent sales tax to pay for it all in 1998. Then in 2007, the shiny-shoes crowd ran into a problem. A movement to end the half-cent sales tax for mass transit had put the issue on the ballot, threatening their plans for more light rail.

Polling showed that the African-American community wasn't too keen on the tax, which made sense. Traditionally African-American areas of the city had been largely left off the mass-transit plan the tax funded. Ditto for the economic development that went with it. None of the five major transit system spokes pointed in those directions.

Without black voters, the tax could be in jeopardy at the polls, they feared. So African-American political leaders were promised a streetcar that would run down Beatties Ford Road, through Elizabeth and down Central Avenue, tying the Beatties Ford corridor into Uptown's prosperity for the first time. That prosperity had largely dead-ended at the I-77 bridge.

So the deal was that African-American political leaders and ministers would back the tax, and in return, they'd get the streetcar. The tax won overwhelmingly at the polls.

Within weeks of the vote, the powers that be started to squirm. The streetcar, which had never been a high priority, might not happen until 2017, transit leaders announced. Or maybe after 2020. Or maybe never. There just wasn't the money for it. It never moved completely to the back burner, but the project wasn't exactly on the front burner, either.

When major roadwork was done in Elizabeth, they laid the tracks as a sign of the city's commitment to a streetcar many believed would be far in the future.

Then 2008 happened. A Pew Research Center study found that Charlotte's African-American population grew by 90,000 in just eight years. Barack Obama won decisively here. Anthony Foxx was elected mayor. Roughly two-thirds of Democrat voters were now black, so white candidates couldn't win most primaries anymore without African-American leaders' help.

Mattie Marshall, president of the Washington Heights community in the Beatties Ford corridor, sounded like a civil rights orator when she reamed the Charlotte City Council for not completing the streetcar sooner last week. And in a way, it was a civil rights speech.

"I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired of waiting and living on empty promises," she said. "I'm a citizen." Marshall went on to remind them that the African-American community had "stood strong" for the half-cent sales tax in 2007.

Even by the Uptown crowd's standards, the execution of the streetcar has been sloppy.

The Charlotte City Council voted last week to approve the $37 million, 1.3-mile first leg of the thing with no idea how many people will ride it. As in, they've got no ridership estimates, not the vaguest clue.

It was approved with no funding source to operate it. Where will the $1.5 million a year to run it come from? Dunno. Ditto for where they will get the hundreds of millions of dollars to expand the line, which is projected to cost $500 million. If we actually built it all or partially out, what would it cost to run it and where would that money come from? That's a mystery, too.

The city wants to expand it, but doesn't know when that will be. At $40 million a mile, probably not any time soon. Given that they had to get a $25 million federal grant just to build this segment, you gotta wonder.

Ask city leaders why they are doing this and they'll mumble something about driving economic development along the line and quote development studies done before the Great Recession.

But the truth is that the streetcar is more a symbol, an acknowledgement of growing African-American political power here and a past-due debt paid.

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