Charlotte Area Transit System is considering new options for extending transit lines north and west of the city, and for tying them all together with existing lines uptown. There are a few surprises.
The options are part of CATS CEO John Lewis's $6 billion to $8 billion plan for updating the 2030 transit plan.
West of Charlotte, two route options are being discussed for a light rail line running west from uptown, past the airport, and possibly - CATS says - across the Catawba River into Gaston County.
CATS senior planner Jason Lawrence said the state is planning a replacement bridge across the Catawba River west of Charlotte, and planners hope it can include space for a rail line.
“So we have a unique opportunity to plan with the state and with communities across the river to at least create an environment where we don't preclude rail across the Catawba River,” Lawrence said. “And just to point out, Belmont is just over 10 miles from center city Charlotte. So it's very close.”
Two proposed west corridor routes would primarily follow Wilkinson Boulevard — rather than West Boulevard — which previously had been considered. For one thing, West Boulevard is on the far side of the airport from the passenger terminal. And CATS says residents at previous public meetings have expressed concern about using West Boulevard.
One proposed route follows Wilkinson Boulevard west out of uptown. The other would first go north out of uptown on an abandoned rail right-of-way through neighborhoods, then join Wilkinson Boulevard east of the airport area. This line would also connect with the planned Silver Line to Matthews.
LIGHT RAIL NORTH
Several options are being discussed for the north corridor, where Lewis said the preferred alternative remains a commuter train to Lake Norman. But Norfolk Southern, which owns the tracks, won't let CATS use them.
So new options include express buses in the I-77 toll lanes or on U.S. 21. And there's another new idea based on feedback from residents: light rail along U.S. 21 to Mooresville, which would require a costly bridge across Lake Norman, Lewis said.
"Right now freight railroad operations and passenger railroad operations conflict with [Norfolk Southern's] ongoing strategic plan," Lewis said. "So we're taking a fresh look at that corridor to identify any alternatives that we can come up with that may allow us to provide rail options in a faster time frame."
Light rail is costlier, Lewis said. But Lake Norman residents at previous meetings have said they want more than just a rush-hour train to and from Charlotte. They want a train that runs all day and on weekends.
CATS is also wrestling with another tangle — how to connect new and existing lines uptown. One idea: A one-mile east-west tunnel under uptown to carry light rail from I-277 to Graham Street. A tunnel would have fewer impacts on vehicle and pedestrian traffic, CATS says.
"It would enable fast and reliable service. However, it would have high costs and risks for construction compared to surface options," CATS said in a flier describing the project.
A CATS spokeswoman said a tunnel would be the most expensive option, by far, though CATS says it currently has no cost estimates. Underground transit lines elswhere have cost $500 million a mile or more. By comparison, the Lynx Blue Line Extension that opened in March cost $120 million per mile.
Another question is how the new lines would connect to both the transit center and the planned Gateway Station, on West Trade Street. It's likely the two will be connected by the Gold Line, which would be extended to Johnson C. Smith University on Beatties Ford Road.
Groundbreaking for track and other infrastructure for the Gateway Station has already started. A formal ground breaking is planned for Friday morning.
HOW TO PAY FOR IT
Another major issue: CATS still has to figure out how to pay for new and extended transit lines. Lewis said they'll have to "get creative."
“Both the Blue Line and the Blue Line extension were generally funded 50 percent federal, 25 percent state and 25 percent local. We hope that model still exists," Lewis said. "There's still a lot of questions on what is the the new infrastructure program coming out of Washington. And the state has since reduced its participation from 25 [percent] to 10 percent."
He said additional funding could come from partnerships with private developers, and from asking voters to approve an addition to the county's half-cent sales tax for transit.
Another potential revenue source is what's called "tax increment financing." As the value of property along a transit line increases, it generates additional property taxes. Local officials could tap into some or all of that increase to help pay for the lines, Lewis said.
That didn't happen with the Blue Line. Lewis said more than $2 billion in new development happened along the south corridor, and hundreds of millions of dollars in projects are planned or under construction on the northeast extension.
"I think hindsight is 20-20," Lewis said. "That would have been great to be able to tap into a portion of that $2 billion in development. We want to make sure we don't lose that opportunity."
PUBLIC MEETINGS AND SURVEY
The updated corridor plans have been drawn up by engineering consultant WSP, based on feedback CATS gathered last fall through public meetings and online surveys. Lewis said CATS expects to present a new set of alternatives to the Metropolitan Transit Commission by the end of this year. The MTC could give the go ahead in early 2019. Then CATS would have to assemble the funding.
Any construction is years away. Lewis said he still hopes CATS can do it all by 2030 — the original target date when the voters approved a half-cent sales tax for transit in 1998. That all depends on the funding.
CATS is holding public meetings on all the revised proposals through mid-August and conducting an online survey to gather feedback on the ideas.
CATS transit planning page, which contains information on all projects, studies, public meeting dates and links to corridor opinion surveys.