Knowledge Park group officially endorses streetcar

A streetcar, like this one pictured in Arkansas, has been discussed in plans to link Winthrop University to downtown Rock Hill through the Knowledge Park area.
A streetcar, like this one pictured in Arkansas, has been discussed in plans to link Winthrop University to downtown Rock Hill through the Knowledge Park area.

After months of study, the group considering the potential for public transportation in plans for the Knowledge Park area has officially endorsed a streetcar as the best option for downtown Rock Hill.

The Knowledge Park Leadership Group, a business-led entity pushing the redevelopment of the post-industrial section of downtown, formally endorsed the idea in a unanimous vote at a Friday morning meeting, then moved on to the question of how to pay for a rail-based transportation line running through the heart of downtown.

Friday’s decision came less than a day after the leadership group presented different transportation options to a public meeting at the new Family Trust Federal Credit Union headquarters, and solicited public feedback on the plan. Group members there said the streetcar would create the biggest “attraction” of all the options under consideration.

James Brown, a financial analyst with the engineering firm HDR, told the group a streetcar would require a 20-year cash flow and would likely take three to five years to implement.

The ultimate cost of the system would depend on how far the rail runs through downtown. A shorter, 1.8-mile route running from downtown to the corner of Adams and Rose streets would be the cheaper option at approximately $23 million, while the 2.1-mile route that would extend out to Cherry Road could cost up to $27 million.

Those costs assume the city will operate a fleet of three streetcars along the route. The annual operating and maintenance cost of the system would be between $1.1 million and $1.4 million.

HDR engineer Steve Carroll told the group he wanted to offer them the most “moderate” plan for operating such a system available.

“I’m trying to give you the Chevrolet option versus the Cadillac,” Carroll said.

Funding options for the plan include charging fares to riders or signing a “bulk user agreement” that would collect fees for ferrying riders from “non-taxpaying institutions” such as Winthrop. But Brown said other transportation systems that charge fees only meet about 10 percent to 15 percent of their operating costs from those sources.

Other potential funding streams include advertising revenue, including sponsorships of the line.

“You could name cars after a company, or even the whole line could be named after somebody,” Brown said. A deal like that could raise between $15,000 and $35,000.

Rock Hill could also seek federal transit funding to help support the streetcar, or raise money from the sale of city-owned property in the area. But the largest chunk of funding would have to come from a specially-created tax district – either the tax-increment finance district in downtown created to fund Knowledge Park improvements, or a municipal improvement district that would levy an additional property tax on the area to pay for infrastructure improvements.

Brown estimated the tax-increment finance district district – or TIF district – could supply $13.5 million in supportable debt for the streetcar. Stephen Turner, Rock Hill’s economic development director, said that of the current TIF district’s $40 million debt capacity, $34 million is still available.

While rail lines would only run through a relatively compact area of downtown, officials hope to expand public transportation out from downtown – perhaps offering a “rubber” (i.e., wheeled) trolley that runs from downtown to the Rock Hill Galleria area.

“Transportation is always one of the top areas that comes up when we poll the public,” said Mayor Doug Echols. “While the streetcar is our primary focus today, if we show how we can phase transportation in over time, it begins to make sense.”

The public still has time to weigh in on the Knowledge Park plans by taking an online survey at knowledgeparkrockhill.com/transportation. The survey will be up through the end of the month.

Bristow Marchant: 803-329-4062, @BristowatHome