WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — The Winston-Salem City Council endorsed a route for a proposed $179 million streetcar downtown on Monday, but the more immediate challenge may be coming up with $1.5 million to do the next wave of studies needed to move the project forward.
The motion to endorse a route running between Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and Fifth Street passed 7-1, with Council Member Robert Clark casting the only vote against it.
Although the motion committed the city to spending no further money on the streetcar, Clark said that he was skeptical of projections from a consultant that the streetcar could bring $2.8 billion in new investment.
The advocates of the streetcar on the council – who had the votes – talked in part about how the city should be able to get federal dollars to support the high startup cost of the project.
“Some cities around the country are going to get it, so it might as well be Winston-Salem,” Council Member Derwin Montgomery said.
What the council approved Monday was the concept of having a streetcar instead of alternatives such as “enhanced” bus service, and the route a streetcar would take: Rolling on rails in the streets through Fourth and Fifth streets downtown, passing north and south through the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter research park, linking places as diverse as Winston-Salem State University and the BB&T Ballpark.
The city had to endorse a transportation method and route to be eligible to get in line for any federal funding that might come down the road.
More immediately, the city will have to find an estimated $1.4 million to $1.5 million to do preliminary engineering studies and environmental reviews, City-County Planning Director Paul Norby told the council.
That money would do for the first 30 percent or so of the engineering required, Norby said. The city could use federal funds to offset that cost too, but none of that spending was on the agenda Monday night.
City administrators will be preparing a list of next steps for the council in months to come.
Even supporters of the route had strong concerns about the project.
Council Member D.D. Adams said that what she heard from constituents is the need for improvements to the city bus system.
Council Member Jeff MacIntosh said he wants to see more details about what kind of assumptions are built into a consulting firm’s conclusion that the streetcar would bring $2.8 billion into the downtown area.
Pointing out that the city’s consultants, HDR Inc., is involved in building streetcar systems as well as doing consulting, Clark said that someone would expect a life insurance salesman to recommend getting more life insurance.
“It is awfully difficult to predict these things,” Clark said, citing examples of North Carolina cities that have seen shortfalls in attendance at museums. Closer to home, Clark said the downtown trolley – a type of bus – is heavily subsidized and doesn’t have enough riders.
Clark said Winston-Salem may simply not have the urban density to support at streetcar.
Council members Dan Besse and Montgomery said that the streetcar would promote the density needed to support it.
Besse made the argument that developers will build next to fixed rails because they know the streetcar isn’t going away, but won’t develop near a bus route that can disappear at any time.
Montgomery said it is better to act now instead of waiting for people to say later on that the city didn’t take the steps it needed to take.
“Someone had to see the vision to see these things happen,” Montgomery said.