Editorial: Desire is a streetcar

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It could be years before a streetcar line comes to Winston-Salem.

City council voted 7-1 to approve the streetcar concept and route, albeit with no funding commitment, on Monday night.

That’s probably a good thing. The downtown district’s rubber-tire trolley has had problems attracting ridership, and no one is clamoring for more public transportation downtown, which is now ably served by the city bus. Part of that is cultural: People like their cars, and as long as parking remains relatively plentiful — which it is, compared to other downtown districts — strong demand does not exist.

But things aren’t always going to be like this.

Even as the Innovation Quarter rises in the east and the BB&T Ballpark continues to influence the west, downtown Winston-Salem attracts more and more residents who want to be where the action is.

The proposed line would run through the center city, from Baptist Hospital down First Street, approaching downtown along Fourth, with stops at the ballpark the bus station and the Innovation Quarter on its way to Winston-Salem State University, drawing a diverse cast of stakeholders into downtown.

If they were building this thing next week, or even next year, there would be a problem. But it won’t always be this way.

The population of downtown Winston-Salem doubled in the first 10 years of the century. If state and federal funding comes on line, the project should start rolling just as a number of other downtown projects, the Innovation Quarter among them, start to bear fruit.

We should acknowledge that the city missed an opportunity. With federal funding, the stimulus program came and went. With state funding, the McCrory administration is much less favorable to transit than the previous Democratic regime.

But cities on the rise need cheap, reliable and useful pubic transportation. It’s good for the economy because it empowers people to get to work and spurs development of housing and retail. It’s good for upward mobility because it gives people a way to get to school. It’s good for the environment because it means fewer cars on the road. And it’s good for the city, because fewer choice parcels of land in these dense areas of town will need to be earmarked for parking. But everybody already knows that, right?

Consistent leadership in city government has given Winston-Salem councilmembers the luxury of being able to look far down the road. That consistency is an advantage when the team makes long-range plans like this one. But have they been too cautious? They’ve planned well, but what good is planning when they’re not willing to act when the moment is opportune?