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Transit Time is a weekly newsletter for Charlotte people who leave the house. Cars, buses, light rail, bikes, scooters ... if you use it to get around the city, you can read news and analysis about it here. Transit Time is produced in partnership by WFAE and The Charlotte Ledger. Subscribe here.

Charlotte’s airport won’t discuss its Thanksgiving traffic meltdown. We have thoughts.

Line of cars in traffic
Tony Mecia
Charlotte Ledger
Traffic backed up heading to the Charlotte Douglas terminal around Thanksgiving.

The days before and after Thanksgiving are the busiest travel days of the year. Of course the airport will be busy.

But the traffic delays at Charlotte Douglas were extreme this year, with reports that it took some people an hour to drive the one mile from Wilkinson Boulevard to the terminal. There were photos on social media of people walking toward the terminal, dragging their suitcases past the gridlock. That was in addition to other backups on Wilkinson and Billy Graham Parkway.

The bottleneck comes after CLT has nearly finished a multi-billion dollar terminal expansion, which includes more lanes for vehicles at the departure and arrival levels. (Some lanes on the departure level were closed as construction continues on a new canopy covering the roadway.)

Is this just the new normal for holidays? And with air travel increasing, will these delays begin seeping into other peak times as well?

CLT declined to speak with WFAE and the Transit Time newsletter about the traffic meltdown.

“We will be conducting a full internal debriefing to review the Thanksgiving holiday and prepare for the Christmas travel season,” the airport said in an emailed statement. “We are open to speaking with you after that debrief takes place.”

In this issue of Transit Time, we will brainstorm ways to get people in and out of CLT faster. We will look at transit options along with the need for a second arrivals and departures area.

A problem with CLT is the airport’s horseshoe roadway design. Cars are funneled into a 1,000-foot arrivals and departures area. They must make two 90-degree turns, which slows traffic, as well as weave in and out of traffic to dart to the curb. Almost 40,000 local travelers passed through CLT the Sunday after Thanksgiving, resulting in a lot of cars attempting to squeeze into a small space.

Is there a way to disperse that traffic? If you don’t want every vehicle converging in one congested spot, the obvious solution is to spread the traffic out over more of the available real estate.

Let’s look at some options. Some can be done now. Others would take years, or even decades.

Short-term solutions

Move the taxis and ride-share companies.

Taxis, along with Uber and Lyft, pick up passengers on the arrivals level.

What if the airport built a new loop road just north of the hourly parking deck and moved them there? It’s now a surface parking lot by the old control tower.

Here is what that would look like: (Please excuse Transit Time’s crude drawing)

Drawing of a roadway at CLT airport
Steve Harrison
What if CLT moved ride-shares and taxis to a new loop road (in red)?

What if CLT moved ride-share and taxis to a new loop road (in red)?

Or, what if CLT followed the lead of other airports and moved ride-hailing services and taxis to their own level on the hourly parking deck across from the terminal? That would still be accessible by foot, via the tunnels from the terminal to the hourly deck, and would take a big chunk of waiting passengers and cars out of the main circulation.

A lane just for buses?

CATS today offers the Sprinter, a bus running between uptown and the airport terminal. Its schedule says it runs about every 30 minutes. But that bus doesn’t have its own bus lane, so it’s stuck in the same holiday traffic as everyone else.

The airport could convert a general-purpose lane into one for buses, including parking shuttle buses — though that might make car traffic even worse.

Charlotte Douglas could look to solve this problem by building a new bus-only lane that perhaps dropps passengers off at the proposed taxi/ride-share loop.

Peak travel period shuttles

What if the airport built temporary drop-off parking lots off Wilkinson Boulevard and Billy Graham Parkway that would only be used during peak periods. People could get dropped off there — there would be no parking spaces — and then catch airport shuttle buses and CATS buses to the terminal.

The buses could operate in their own dedicated lanes, allowing them to make the trip from the remote drop-off area to the terminal in five minutes or so.

Long-term fixes

A rendering of the expanded Concourse A, which is expected to open next year.
A rendering of the expanded Concourse A, which is expected to open next year.

Create a new entrance near the new A gates

Though there are now gates nearly a half-mile from the main terminal, CLT still requires all passengers to be dropped off and picked up in the same place. And Charlotte Douglas has an addition to the A Concourse under construction, known as the Concourse A Expansion – Phase II. It is adding 10 gates, mostly for Delta Air Lines, and is expected to open next fall..

With that portion of the airport expanding, what if the airport built a second entrance that’s just north of the daily decks, near the new A Concourse gates under construction? Here’s where it would go:

A new road (in blue) would bring passengers to the new entrance at CLT.
Steve Harrison
The airport could build a new arrivals and departures area on the west side of the airport, by the new portion of Concourse A. A new road (in blue) would bring passengers to the new entrance.

The security lanes could be on the east side of the main roadway. After clearing security, passengers could walk across a bridge to reach the A gates.

The new entrance would be labeled for passengers flying on airlines like Frontier, Southwest, United and Delta that use the A gates today. Having multiple passenger entrances is common at large airports.

One challenge would be creating the new road to reach the new entrance — and not creating new traffic jams as those lanes merge onto the existing lanes.

Bring the proposed light-rail station closer

The Charlotte Area Transit System plans to build an airport station for the proposed Silver Line light rail on Wilkinson Boulevard — but not near the terminal. Transit Time in 2021* took an extensive look at why the city’s reasoning didn’t make sense.

If Transit Time were designing the airport, we would build the Silver Line airport station adjacent to our new airport entrance near the A gates.

That would make it easy for the train to continue to the west toward Belmont. It would also give rail passengers an easy transfer from the station to the terminal.

Here is what that would look like:

Light rail sketch and roads at CLT
Steve Harrison
The light-rail line (in orange) would have a station adjacent to a new airport entrance by the A gates.

Even if the Silver Line is built, this likely won’t be a short-term fix: Under the most optimistic timeline, the light rail line isn’t expected to be complete until around 2040.

Some of these solutions might be feasible, while other could take decades, cost millions or perhaps be totally impractical.

We’re not traffic engineers. But we do know that waiting in an hour of traffic to reach the terminal every time the airport has a surge of activity won’t be sustainable going forward.

Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.