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The death of a trolley 

It's perhaps the most obscene waste of cash the city of Charlotte has ever seen. Yet it merited just three lines in The Charlotte Observer two weeks ago. The other media outlets in town appear to have bypassed the story completely.

Around here, that's how you know something really important happened -- as in, more than $40 million right down the crapper.

On July 1, the Charlotte Trolley stopped running and everyone pretended not to notice. That could be because the timing was a bit, shall we say, awkward. The trolley went kaput the same week the city announced it received a federal grant to go forward with a new $40 million ... streetcar. (So far, the feds are on the hook for $25 million while we pay at least $12 million. The total cost of the line is supposed to be upward of $500 million when fully built out.)

That means the city paid $40 million for a trolley that ran its full route for just two years.

"I am stunned," Maarten Pennink told the Observer in 2006, "by the willingness to be extravagant."

He was reacting to the sight of the ripped up trolley line scattered along the new light rail tracks four years ago, with nearly brand-new trolley stations on their sides, shoved aside to make way for rail.

The Charlotte Area Transit System vowed at the time to continue running the trolley along the same line as the rail. So they ripped up the brand-new trolley track and rebuilt a light rail line in its place, then integrated the trolley into that new system. The cost of integrating the trolley line into the light rail line was never made public. I tried repeatedly to get it, but the Charlotte Area Transit System would never break it out, no matter how many different ways I asked. Ten million? Twenty million? Fifty million? We'll never know. So there's no way to calculate what we really spent on the trolley in total.

But what we do know is that when the trolley restarted, it just ran on weekends. Then, infrequently on weekends. And since July 1, not at all.

Some like to credit the business development along the line to the trolley to justify it, but you could just as easily argue that light rail along the same line would have spurred the same development -- or that development to general Uptown momentum, which transformed the Dilworth area a decade before the trolley or light rail ever came up for debate.

The first article I ever wrote as a political reporter for The Leader newspaper in 1997 questioned the entire trolley scheme. Back then it was only supposed to cost $9.7 million. But as is often the case with city cost estimates on big projects, the numbers seemed laughably low.

The bureaucrats raked me over the coals for the article, as they often did in those days, for suggesting their cost estimates were wrong. As it turns out, I was wrong, too. I'd figured the final cost would come in at double what they projected. Instead, they came in at four times the original figure.

I can remember the few council members who bothered to question city staff during the trolley debate wondering why we were going forward with a trolley when we were also planning to vote on putting light rail on the same line. If we went forward with light rail, why would we need the trolley? Who would ride it, they asked. It made no sense at the time and it still doesn't now.

But city staff insisted everything would be fabulous and out came the checkbook.

Now some of the same city staffers, and their protégés, who brought us the trolley want to go forward with a streetcar that will eventually run from Beatties Ford Road to the old Eastland Mall. These days, city leaders are even sloppier than they were on the run-up to the trolley, when they used to at least put together actual ridership estimates.

This time, they don't even have those. That's right: We're spending $40 million for a 1.5 mile "starter" section of the streetcar line with no idea of how many people will ride the thing.

They also don't know where the other $460 million for the rest of the project will come from. It's hard to believe that people will pay to ride a streetcar for a mere 1.5 miles -- or bother to get on for that short a distance even if it's free. So the next $40 million and the one after that will have to come from somewhere.

The purpose? They claim it's to attract development, never mind that the city already has an unsellable inventory of unwanted Uptown condos that stretches for years and the biggest recent commercial announcements Uptown have included words like "foreclosure," "consolidating" or "shutting down."

And the money to operate the streetcar? Nobody has a clue where that will come from, either.

City leaders would prefer to learn the answers to these questions as they go. That didn't work so well with the trolley. It will probably go about as well with the streetcar.

For another take on the streetcar debate, check out this week's edition of Boomer With Attitude.

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