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Derailed: Streetcar too expensive, officials say

Derailed: Streetcar too expensive, officials say


No streetcars will be running in between Wake Forest University and Winston-Salem State University.

At least not any time soon. Probably not in your lifetime, one Winston-Salem official said this week.

Winston-Salem officials say a study commissioned by the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter showed that the cost of building the line would be much too high to tackle.

That study pegs construction costs ranging from $190 million to $210 million for the stretch from Wake Forest University to the Innovation Quarter, plus another $45 million to $50 million for the link over to WSSU, for a grand total in the range of $235 million to $260 million.

On top of that are annual operating costs that would range from $4.5 million to $10.5 million, based on a surveyed range of operating costs among cities that have a similar system.

As a result, the city is adjusting its sights: Where it once hoped a federal grant would help plan for the streetcar, the grant is being revised to focus on other options for a disused rail corridor, including greenway or rail-trail options.

“The residents have an expectation that it is coming, and if it is not coming, we need to let them know it is not coming,” Winston-Salem City Council Member Annette Scippio said on Tuesday, reacting to the news. “People got a little excited about it. It would be great to go back to the neighborhood and let them know it is cost-prohibitive.”

The street car plan was nothing if not ambitious: It would have taken advantage of a disused rail track that heads north from the Innovation Quarter to 27th Street, but it would have taken a lot of new construction, too.

The plan called for rail tracks to run along 27th Street toward the Winston-Salem Fairgrounds, where they would have passed near Joel Coliseum and BB&T Field en route to Wake Forest.

On the south end, new construction would have been needed to link to WSSU along Rams Drive.

The plan got mixed reviews in 2018, when the Journal did random interviews along 27th Street in the neighborhood through which the line would have traveled. Some people said they liked the idea, while others worried about rail cars and autos sharing a road, not to mention concerns for pedestrian and child safety.

Thanks to the Innovation Quarter study, those plans look to stay on the drawing board.

City council members learned about the fate of the streetcar in committee meetings this week. Assistant City Manager Damon Dequenne said the planning the city hopes to now do with the federal grant would help in the future if the streetcar idea comes back to the front burner.

“You have to think of this as a marathon,” Dequenne said.

“It is much more than looking at another greenway or brick path. It is a comprehensive plan ... that would involve land use in the community.”

What the city council will be doing on Monday is accepting an $800,000 federal grant that requires the city to put up $200,000 for a $1 million total project.

The money is intended to help cities with land use and transportation planning along existing or future transportation corridors. So even though the streetcar is on ice for now, the planning will make recommendations that can be used for planning for a future streetcar.

Dequenne, who said the Innovation Quarter study showed a streetcar “was not going to be feasible in anyone’s lifetime,” said the better short-term option was “a pedestrian and bike-friendly greenway option” for the old rail line.

Out on 27th Street Wednesday afternoon, two people expressed no surprise that the streetcar isn’t coming. Tracy Johnson said she thought a streetcar “probably would have been a good thing.”

Gloria Barnes said she never believed it would come anyway.

“I wouldn’t have rode it,” she said. “I’ve got my red car there. They would have had to widen the street and tear down some stuff.”

On the council, Scippio suggested that the city could test out demand by running a bus along the proposed route.

But Council Member Dan Besse said that fixed-rail transportation, as opposed to buses, actually creates development along its path. Look at Charlotte, Besse said, where light rail has caused a lot of new development along transportation corridors.

“New housing and businesses will be proposed and built along a fixed-rail transit corridor at an accelerated rate over a non-transit corridor,” Besse said. “When you put a bus route down, you know it can be moved. When you put a fixed rail down, you know it is transportation that will always be there.”

The north-south route was the second version of a downtown streetcar that’s been kicked around for a number of years now. An earlier proposal called for connecting the Innovation Quarter and Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center with an east-west route.

With an estimated price tag of around $180 million in 2013 dollars, that plan went nowhere.

Council Member John Larson, noting that the north-south route would include service to Joel Coliseum and the fairgrounds, said he hopes the study can set the stage for the future.

“I’m in favor of a study, and hope it reveals we can invest in something we can upgrade in the future,” Larson said.



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