Van Hoy: Trolley redux in Charlotte

CharlotteStreetcarRotatorGoldIn July, the City of Charlotte began to operate trolley cars. Many millions have been spent just on design and construction, with many more millions to come. Even the city does not contend that ridership will be adequate to make operations self-sustaining.

My late father, Dr. Joe Van Hoy, grew up in Charlotte, as did I. On a family vacation in 1961 that included New Orleans, we rode the Canal Street Trolley. I took that occasion to ask my dad if he missed the trolley cars in Charlotte, which had been retired in favor of buses in 1938. I recall his reply because it so surprised me at the time. Rather than being nostalgic, he was quite critical.Phil Van Hoy - The Mecklenburger

He said that the transition from trolleys to buses was a natural progression, a technological advance. Trolleys, also known as street cars, operated in lanes also used by automobiles, so they blocked auto traffic with their frequent stops to pick up and disgorge passengers.

Because the route of trolleys is confined to the rails on which they operate, if one breaks down or wrecks, no other trolley can go around. All have to wait until the trolley has been repaired, or moved after an accident is investigated.

This is not an abstraction—one of the new Charlotte trolleys wrecked within the first few days of operation. As a Charlotte Observer reporter put it, “In only its first weekend, our new streetcar has already stimulated the economy—for auto body shops.” National news media used the opportunity to make a laughingstock of Charlotte:  To paraphrase, “These Southerners are so attracted to nostalgia that they just spent millions for a technology that has been obsolete for 75 years, and now it already has wrecked.” One national network headlined the story as “Trolley Terror,” with predictably caustic comments about Charlotte.

The old street cars also were unsightly due to the birds’ nest of overhead wires that powered them.  Now we have the same visual pollution again. Travel down the trolley route on East Trade Street, look up, and you will see.

The route only goes a mile and a half, a route already serviced by buses, taxis, private autos, and a city-run free shuttle, the Gold Rush.

There is not even a contention that this dinosaur is somehow the wave of the future or saves time. It travels in the traffic lanes with wheeled vehicles, stops for red lights and stops for traffic delays and wrecks. Unlike buses, if preferred routes change, new or replacement rails must be laid instead of simply turning a corner as wheeled vehicles do.

All this, and the City of Charlotte has already spent $37 million, with the cost overruns that are endemic to public projects. And there is another $150 million yet to spend to extend a line a mere two and a half miles more, on a route already served by public transit.

When the rails for the trolley were laid, a section was built with the rails not the right gauge to support the trolley wheels. More delay, expense, and disruption of traffic resulted.

Another gem of wisdom my father offered when my brothers and I were growing up is that it is easy to spend other people’s money. The context was he and my mother going around our house turning off light switches we boys left on. He told me then that I would be doing the same thing if I were to have children. He turned out to be correct, of course.

At least the new trolleys in Charlotte apparently will have one advantage over the ones the city had the good sense to retire in 1938. The new ones will not delay traffic frequently for passengers to get on and off. Ridership already is way too low to support operating costs, even though the trolleys are a novelty right now.

Spending the hard-earned money of others is a particular temptation for elected officials, who have the incentive to pander for reelection by taking from the tax-payers to buy toys for many who ride in the wagon of government instead of helping to pull it. The Charlotte City Council is a signal example of this phenomenon.

Phil Van Hoy grew up in Charlotte and attended Charlotte-Mecklenburg public schools. After graduating from law school, he served a short period of active duty as an Army officer. He went on to practice employment law as an attorney in the Duke Power legal department and in private law firms before co-founding Van Hoy, Reutlinger, Adams and Dunn in 1989. The firm specializes in employment law and litigation, representing employers and executives.