Feds tout Charlotte streetcar as transportation cliff nears

Feds tout Charlotte streetcar as transportation cliff nears
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The Obama administration is touting a new federally-supported streetcar line in Charlotte, N.C. as the nation's funding for such infrastructure is teetering on the brink of a July 31 cliff. 

Service on the Charlotte streetcar route, which has been dubbed the CityLynx Gold Line, began on Tuesday after a ribbon cutting ceremony that was attended by Transportation Secretary Anthony FoxxAnthony Renard FoxxGeorgia Power says electricity at Atlanta airport will likely be restored by midnight Ex-Obama transportation chief on Atlanta airport power outage: 'Total and abject failure' To address America's crumbling infrastructure, follow Britain's lead MORE, who is a former mayor of Charlotte. 

Acting Federal Transit Administration chief Therese McMillian said in a blog post on the transportation department that the 1.5 mile streetcar line in Charlotte could be a model for other cities across the country if Congress pass an infrastructure funding extension. 

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"Residents of Charlotte, North Carolina’s largest city, already benefit from light rail, but the streetcar will go deep into the central business district and provide a new way for people to access health care centers, universities, city services and scores of retail establishments," McMillian wrote. 

"Streetcars can, with their retro look and measured pace, promote businesses as much as they get people from Point A to Point B," she continued. "They offer potential to spur new development, often in areas that had been economically flat-lining, adding to the character of downtown neighborhoods." 

The federal government contributed two-thirds of the approximately $37 million it cost to build the first phase of the Charlotte CityLynx Gold Line streetcar line trhough the FTA's "Urban Circulator" program. 

The first phase of the streetcar route runs on a 1.5 mile route in Charlotte's Uptown area and includes six stations, including one that connects with Charlotte's existing Lynx Blue Line light railway. 

City officials are planning to expand the line by another 2.5 miles, but financing details are still being worked out. 

McMillian said the federal government's ability to contribute to future infrastructure projects like the Charlotte streetcar is in jeopardy because of a looming July 31 deadline for the expiration of the current transportation spending bill. 

"FTA contributed two-thirds of the cost of the Gold Line phase 1 through its Urban Circulator program," she wrote. "Yet, while we can celebrate successes like this, we worry that a lack of long-term funding certainty will threaten more transportation assets like this from opening." 

Lawmakers are scrambling to prevent an interruption in the nation's transportation spending at the end of the month, but consensus on how to pay for it has been elusive. 

The House unveiled on Monday evening an approximately $8 billion measure that would extend the nation's infrastructure spending until December. The Senate, meanwhile, has worked on a longer, six-year, $275 billion transportation funding measure, but lawmakers in the upper chamber have yet not revealed how their legislation would be paid for. 

The traditional source of transportation funding has been revenue from the 18.4 cents per gallon federal gas tax. The tax has not been increased since 1993, however, and has struggled to keep pace with construction costs as vehicles have become more fuel efficient. 

The federal government typically spends about $50 billion per year on transportation projects, but the gas tax only brings in about $34 billion annually at its current rate. 

Lawmakers have turned to other areas of the federal budget in recent years to close the gap, but transportation supporters argues the resulting temporary patches are preventing states from undertaking badly needed large construction projects.  

McMillian said the Obama administration's proposal for a six-year, $478 billion transportation bill that it says can be paid for largely with taxes that could be collected on corporate profits that are stored overseas could easily solve the infrastructure funding problem. 

"GROW AMERICA, our proposed long-term transportation bill, would provide increased funding to expand public transportation projects like the Charlotte streetcar," she wrote. "Significant reductions or continued uncertainty in federal transportation funding could seriously jeopardize projects like this that require stable funding sources." 

Republicans in Congress have said they are open to the idea, known as repatriation, but the parties have squabbled about the rate of the corporate taxes and whether companies should be required to participate.