Who Needs Sidewalks? We Have Light Rail!

“They played outside, were friendly and polite,” said neighbors of 2 young boys who were hit and killed on February 22 by a delivery truck on one of the busiest roads in Charlotte, North Carolina. Kadrien Pendergrass, 5, and Jeremy Brewton, 1, were on their daily walk with their father and infant sibling to their preschool when a truck, trying to turn right, struck the boys. The stretch of road the accident occurred on is one familiar to city officials, who knew that sidewalks were needed to prevent residents from having to walk on the side of the road.  City Councilwoman LaWana Mayfield is quoted as saying the West Tyvola sidewalk project was No. 2 on the city’s priorty list, but the city ran out of bond money for new projects at the end of the last fiscal quarter.

So where is the Charlotte Department of Transportation spending all of their Charlotteans money?  On light rail of course!  Charlotte received a grant for $18 million in early December 2011 and will spend an additional $4 million of taxpayer money to upgrade the existing light rail.  They have also been awarded an additional $70 million by the Obama administration to extend the light rail.  Upon learning of their favoritism with the administration, Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) chief executive, Carolyn Flowers said, “It was a very good day for us.”  Never mind previous research conducted by the Department of Transportation that showed the gradual cost of sidewalks, bike lanes, and other features are far less than the normal annual costs of construction.  Research that proved right, according to a recent Charlotte City Council meeting in which discussion included spending $6.5 million to ship each rail car (only in service for 4 years) to California for routine maintenance that the city is unable to perform.  In fact, the cost of Charlotte’s light rail is only predicted to rise and no plans have been forthcoming as to how to keep it under control.  In 2012, the cost per hour to run just one rail car in Charlotte is projected to be $332.32, or nearly $3 million per year.  Curiously, in 2010 Federal Transit Administrator, Peter Rogoff, said that rail systems nationwide had billions in deferred maintenance. He questioned whether the federal government should financially help cities to build new rail lines when those cities are struggling to maintain the rail lines they already have.  However, on the subject of the $70 million grant Charlotte (a city in a key swing state) received, Rogoff had nothing but praise for the light rail extension. “We are very supportive of this project. We don’t see any show-stoppers,” Rogoff said last month.  He also expects the federal government to sign off later in the year on an additional $530 million to further the project, which the city desperately needs to help cover the $1.07 billion total price tag.  Previously Charlotte passed a half-cent sales tax to help cover costs, however, the sales tax is projected to provide nearly $476 million less over the next decade than originally planned.

Fortunately for  Charlotte, the generosity of the Obama administration goes beyond giving the city millions of dollars in grant money.  Charlotte will play host to the Democratic National Convention in September and will be raking in money from thousands who will undoubtedly be using the light rail while in town.  If anyone was even considering using the bus, whose main station is located conveniently within walking distance from the arena where Obama will be reelected, the city has removed that option by relocating the transit station to a temporary location yet to be announced.  That also means that the many locals who rely on the bus to get to and from work downtown will also be forced to use the light rail or find another mode of transportation.  The removal of the bus station may play a duel role for the city of Charlotte as it not only forces many people on the light rail, thereby providing them with extra money they need, but it also hides the growing crime problem and the many homeless people that congregate at the station.

For all their efforts to accommodate the DNC, the people of Charlotte would be right to wonder if they now can expect sidewalks to be funded; considering the large influx of money the city has promised will be coming with the DNC.  Unfortunately, the city, beholden to their light rail money pit, does not seem as if they will be coming through for the people.  Even if they moved the West Tyvola sidewalk project to the top of their priority list, which they have stated they cannot do, the Charlotte Department of Transportation still claims it would take them two to three years to complete the sidewalk.  As for those left in the neighborhood struck by such a tragic accident, neighbor Hilda Bynum is hoping for more taxes, which she believes would be worth it if that’s what will keep them safe.