10-mile streetcar would come with hefty price

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CHARLOTTE, N.C.,None - Late next year, workers will start building the first stretch of streetcar in Charlotte. It will be a mile-and-a half long and it will run from Presbyterian hospital down Elizabeth Avenue to the arena.

The cost to taxpayers is $37 million.

But some city leaders hope that one day, the tracks will be 10 miles long, running from Eastland Mall through uptown, all the way to Rosa Parks Place in west Charlotte.

The estimated cost for that is $456 million.

The owner of City Deli, located right on the tracks, is looking forward to the streetcar.

Down the street, Red Sky gallery owner Kelly Scott expects it to bring more customers from uptown.

"We have people who walk from uptown to the gallery," Scott said.

But is it worth $456 million?

The city is like a business, here to provide you with services that you pay for just like any customer. And Channel 9 wondered how much value customers of Charlotte are really getting in the streetcar, so we compared it to several other current transit projects.

WATCH: Behind The Investigation - Charlotte's Million Dollar Streetcar

For instance, the widening of Interstate 485 in south Charlotte will cost $12.3 million per mile. Every day, 107,000 vehicles drive it. Divide the cost per mile by the number of vehicles and you get the cost per daily customer served by the project: $114.

Adding extra lanes to I-85 near Concord is costing $187 per customer.

The last leg of 485 at $31 million per mile will cost $500 per daily customer.

Extending the Independence freeway near Sharon Amity will cost $1,045 per customer.

But the 10-mile streetcar would cost more per customer than all those projects combined. It's estimated at $45.7 million a mile, with a projected 16,000 daily riders by 2030. That's $2,856 per customer.

Only the light rail cost more at $3,047 per customer.

Click here to see data for recent transportation projects near Charlotte

City Councilman Andy Dulin said CATS already runs the same route with 3,000 riders a day.

And then there is the $1.5 million it will cost every year to operate the streetcar.

"1.5 million. They have no idea how they will pay for that," Dulin said. "They literally are going to count on the city manager to just make that money up."

County Commissioner Jennifer Roberts, who is also chair of the Metropolitan Transit Commission, has a very different view.

"The federal and state government, when they look at the value of projects, they don't just look at the cost and ridership," Roberts said.

Roberts said the streetcar will reduce traffic and create cleaner air, attract new businesses along the route and connect people to the light rail.

"It's part of a system," Roberts said. "And yes, some parts of the system are going to be a little bit higher. But when you look at that whole system and the viability of making it all work, it makes a different story."

And it's a story that will be continued since there's no funding yet for the entire 10-mile track.

The debate over paying for it could still be going strong when the first leg on Elizabeth opens up to riders in 2015.

Previous Stories: July 26, 2010: City Leaders Approve Construction Of First Leg Of Charlotte Streetcar July 9, 2010: Charlotte Gets $25M Grant For Streetcar Project November 24, 2009: Charlotte Streetcar Designers Plan New Cost Estimates