Winston-Salem city council picks preferred streetcar route

Winston-Salem stock photo (Wikipedia)

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Winston-Salem would find itself in the hunt for federal mass-transit money if the city council votes Monday on a preferred route for a downtown streetcar.

It could be years before the city finds out when – or if – the money would be available, city officials said.

“The federal government has (money) for transit systems, but it is a very competitive process,” Winston-Salem City Manager Lee Garrity said on Friday. “We don’t have local financing, so we would have to get federal funding.”

The route the council is considering would run between Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center and the corner of Fifth Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. Along the way, it would pass the BB&T Ballpark, and then travel on Fourth and Fifth streets downtown.

The streetcar would run north-south through Wake Forest Innovation Quarter and connect to Winston-Salem State University east of U.S. 52.

Estimates show that the proposed streetcar would take $179 million to build and $4.3 million to operate each year. But advocates say that the development boost the project would bring far outweigh the costs.

Still, advocates are also looking to federal funds to finance the lion’s share of the project. HDR Engineering Inc., the consultant that is working with the city on the plans, is telling city council members as they head into Monday’s vote that a Small Starts program in the Federal Transit Administration could provide up to 49 percent – or $88 million – toward the startup cost of the streetcar.

The city could pursue state funds as well, consultants say, although Council Member Dan Besse, a streetcar supporter, said that political support for rail systems is not present in Raleigh currently.

“I think in the long run the opportunities look good,” Besse said, adding that the success of light rail in Charlotte should help gain future support.

City consultants say that the city could also consider trying for a loan from the federal Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act loan program, or pursue a grant from another federal program called Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery program.

The consultants said that the last program has paid for streetcar projects in Atlanta, Charlotte, Portland, Ore., and other cities.

Although the city council has not committed itself to building the streetcar, the project has so far not aroused much opposition on the council. When the city’s Public Works Committee met on Feb 11 to discuss the project, only Council Member Robert Clark voted against sending the proposal for a preferred alternative to the full city council.

Clark based his opposition at that time not on the concept, but said that he wanted to have more information, especially about the expected costs of streetcar replacement.

According to the consultant’s estimates, it would take $41 million to buy seven active streetcars plus one spare for the route.

During committee, Clark made the comment that the cost was high for a project that he said most people would never use.

Among the additional information HDR has provided the council for Monday’s meeting is the estimate that the useful life of a streetcar is usually 25 years, or about twice the average useful life of a bus. With more maintenance, the life of a streetcar can be extended to 40 years, the consultants say.

Although the city is not committed at this point to move forward on putting in the streetcar, the studies that have been carried out and the selection of a preferred route are all required for the city to be eligible for federal funds.

Besse said he believes that the economic development the streetcar can bring would benefit the city as a whole, even if most people never ride the streetcar.

“The sooner we get a system like this in place, the more we will stand out,” Besse said.

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