Could the $40 million SouthEnd trolley grind to a halt if it's "incompatible" with light rail?
That's what Charlotte Area Transit System Chief Executive Ron Tober seemed to be saying in a March 23 Charlotte Business Journal article that had SouthEnd business owners up in arms and trolley advocates urging their supporters to contact city council members in support of the trolley.
According to the article, executives at CATS and other experts are concerned that the logistics of splitting track time between light rail trains and trolleys that would share the same track could prove difficult.
With trolley service now relegated to off-peak hours, and an anticipated increase in fares, "it isn't clear how long CATS will even attempt to operate the service," the Business Journal's Erik Spanberg wrote.
The article says Tober told the Business Journal that the trolley will be assessed when light rail gets up and running in November and that it will take two to three years to determine if the two are compatible. "If things don't work well with historic trolley service, we may be forced to consider" ending the trolley line, the paper quoted Tober as saying.
"He doesn't mean it," says Charlotte Center City Partners President Michael Smith, referring to Tober. "We have been given assurances that CATS has committed to maintaining trolley service, and we're excited that CATS understands the important role that the historic trolley plays not too much for transportation but more as an asset that celebrates the history of Charlotte."
Smith declined to comment on the Business Journal's article. Instead he read to Creative Loafing part of a letter he is drafting to send to Tober. The letter emphasizes the importance of the trolley's continued operation to SouthEnd's businesses.
But why send the letter to Tober if CATS plans to run the trolley indefinitely?
"I would just say that in our conversations with CATS and with Ron Tober that they have affirmed their commitment," says Smith.
But Tober, CATS and the city have given the business community plenty of reasons to doubt what they say about the trolley. And there are signs that CATS is cutting corners and scaling back on trolley service ahead of what was supposed to be the debut of the light rail line and reopening of the trolley line this fall.
In a 2003 Charlotte Observer article on the trolley, Tober described the trolley service "that everyone was promised" as "7 days a week, 12 hours a day." Now CATS plans to run the trolley, which will rack up a projected $350,000 deficit each year, only on weekends and off-peak hours on weekdays. That could reduce trolley ridership by more than 60 percent, taking it from an expected 325,000 to about 120,000.
The next blow was the elimination last year of the Park Avenue trolley stop, considered by some to be the "linchpin" for attracting consumers to the area. Its removal has business owners who claim they located in SouthEnd because of the promise of full-time trolley service furious.
"CATS decision to remove the Park Avenue station is unfortunate," Smith wrote in his letter to Tober from Center City Partners. "We are also clearly disappointed in the process that led to this decision. The constituents of the Historic SouthEnd were not informed of the possibility of losing the stop and certainly were never asked for any public input or feedback. We are concerned that the removal of the Park Avenue trolley station degrades the experience of our guests."
The next blow came when CATS announced that vintage Streetcar No. 85, which Charlotte Trolley Inc. volunteers had spent thousands of hours restoring, wouldn't be safe enough to meet federal standards and would be taken out of service. CATS had spent $180,000 on electrical gear for the now unusable streetcar. Tober says CATS belatedly learned that the car wouldn't meet safety standards because the federal inspection that determined its safety didn't take place until recently and is one of the last parts of the process.
Whatever the case, the folks at Charlotte Trolley, which works closely with CATS, appeared to take what Tober said in the Business Journal seriously. A press release put out by the group urged those "concerned by recent published reports that cast any doubt about the long-term viability of Charlotte's vintage trolley service" to register their support for trolleys with city council members.
Charlotte Trolley Executive Director Lisa Gray said she was "surprised" by the Business Journal article, and by the loss of the Park Avenue stop.
"I don't know how CATS decided to take that stop away," she says.
Tober says the Business Journal quoted him accurately, but that he was responding to a question about what would happen if running the trolley and light rail on the same track on complex alternating schedules proved too difficult.
"I don't expect that will be the case," says Tober. "If they don't work out for one reason or another, one will have to go. It shouldn't be shock to anyone that the historic trolley will be the one to go."
Tober says he is puzzled that his comments caused so much controversy. But those who have watched the debate over the trolley for years remember city engineers and later Tober repeatedly assuring concerned city council members and others that the trolley and light rail could share a single track and that there would be no engineering problems of any kind. For Tober to now say that CATS will spend two to three years assessing whether light rail and the trolley are compatible is something of an about-face.
But Tober says there's no reason for worry.
"There's no question in my mind that we will be able to make it work," Tober says.