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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.

New details emerge on Charlotte's Silver Line light rail

James Willamor

Charlotte’s new east-west light rail is still decades away from completion, but a City Council committee on Monday got a closer look at some of the numbers dictating how, when and where the rail line is likely to be built.

Running from Gaston County, past the airport, skirting uptown’s northern end and then running southeast along Independence Boulevard and then Monroe Road into Union County, the 29-mile Silver Line would be the biggest single part of Charlotte’s $13.5 billion transit plan.

Planners for the transit system said Monday that the portion of the Silver Line running through Mecklenburg County would cost about $8.1 billion. They’re recommending the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) build the Silver Line in two phases:

  • Phase A would run southeast from uptown, mostly along Independence Boulevard and Monroe Road, and open in 2036. Phase A would cost $5.1 billion.
  • Phase B would run west to the airport, opening in 2039. It would cost $3 billion.

The cost of the rail line east and west to other counties wasn’t factored into this estimate.

Planners also said they are tweaking the Silver Line’s route and station locations in several spots, to accommodate possible future developments and to reflect the wishes of neighborhoods wanting better access to light rail.

Charlotte is taking big steps in planning for the Silver Line. But it hasn’t yet solved the thorny problem of how to pay for it. The most likely sources of money seem to be an increase in local sales taxes combined with cash from the federal government and possibly the state, but specifics remain uncertain.

Additional details on ridership, costs

The planners estimate that the 15-mile southeast portion of the light rail would carry an average of 19,000 riders daily by 2050. The western segment, about half as long, would carry about 10,000 riders a day by then.

The higher cost and longer timetable are increases from last year. The Charlotte Moves task force initially estimated the project would cost $6.2 billion and be able to open in 2030.

Building the Silver Line in phases is necessary to minimize disruption and account for the hefty price tag, planners said.

Also Monday, the City Council’s Transportation, Planning & Environment Committee heard five recommended changes to routes and station locations:

1. Move station on Wilkinson Boulevard

Planners recommended moving a station from Suttle Avenue to Berryhill Road, near the intersection of Wilkinson and Morehead Street. They said the shift would provide better pedestrian access to a station, away from a section of Wilkinson that is like a highway, and would also provide “better opportunities for redevelopment,” CATS planner Andy Mock said.

2. Add a station at Summit Avenue

After receiving feedback from the Wilmore neighborhood, planners are resurrecting plans for a light rail stop at Summit Avenue, near the intersection of the John Belk Freeway and I-77. This also happens to be by Charlotte Pipe & Foundry, which is being rezoned and is thought to be a possible site for a new Carolina Panthers stadium.

The station could “potentially serve the Pipe & Foundry developments,” Mock said.

3. Add a station in First Ward

Planners are suggesting adding a stop along 11th Street between Caldwell and Davidson streets in uptown’s First Ward. It would be just two or three blocks from another station on 11th Street, which led some council members to wonder if some planned stations are too close together.

“I don’t know how we determine where the balance is that we want to strike between more stations making things two or three blocks closer to someone to walk versus that’s another stop, and each of those stops adds time to the ride,” said council member Larken Egleston.

CATS CEO John Lewis replied that stations in suburban areas should be farther apart, but that in urban settings they should be closer together “to provide convenient access to more people.”

4. Shift route near the BOplex

Planners are proposing to shift the route by Bojangles Coliseum and Ovens Auditorium to avoid cutting through the Golden Green Hotel.

The move would save money by not having to acquire and demolish a large hotel, and, Mock added: “There are some very intriguing proposals out there to rethink the use of that hotel to include affordable housing and other workforce educational opportunities.” (He didn’t elaborate.)

5. Shift route along Monroe Road in Matthews

Originally, the light rail line was expected to go down the middle of Monroe Road, near the intersection with Sardis Road North. Now, though, planners are recommending the line go behind several businesses on the western portion of Monroe Road, which they say will be less expensive because they won’t have to acquire 30-35 businesses and reroute utility lines.

Economic impact of avoiding center of uptown

In a separate presentation, a city consultant offered more justification for having the Silver Line run along 11th Street, north of uptown’s center, rather than tunneling under Trade Street. Some transit advocates have favored the latter option, which they say would draw more riders and make it easier to transfer to the Blue Line.

But city planners favor the 11th Street route because it offers more redevelopment opportunities — a key component of the plan.

Jane Lim-Yap, a consultant advising the city, said putting the line along 11th Street would open 30 more acres worth of currently underused land than tunneling under Trade Street. She also said that tunneling under Trade Street would be more disruptive, with more business impacts and a street grid that would be interrupted by tunnel entrances and exits spanning 800 feet, or two city blocks each.

The 11th Street alignment would also generate an estimated $20 million to $35 million worth of annual property tax revenue after the Silver Line’s construction, Lim-Yap said. That’s more than the $15 million to $20 million worth of annual additional property tax that would be generated along Trade Street.

Council member Ed Driggs cautioned against the perception that route decisions would be made solely to maximize property tax revenue for the city.

“I often deal with citizens who suspect our zoning process and our planning process are a revenue exercise,” said Driggs, who also pointed out that much of the redevelopment is likely to happen anyway. “You don’t have a zero alternative here.”

The tunnel option is “off the table” at this point, Driggs said.

The Metropolitan Transit Commission, a countywide governing body for CATS, is expected to approve the final alignment in the coming months.

Ely Portillo is assistant director at the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute. Tony Meciais editor of The Charlotte Ledger.

Transit Time is produced in partnership among WFAE, The Charlotte Ledger and the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute. Subscribe here. Other affiliated Charlotte newsletters and podcasts include: The Charlotte Ledger Business Newsletter and Ways of Life newsletter (obituaries), available from The Charlotte Ledger; WFAE's Inside Politics newsletter; and The UNC Charlotte Urban Institute newsletter and the Future Charlotte podcast from the Urban Institute.

Ely Portillo has worked as a journalist in Charlotte for over a decade. Before joining WFAE, he worked at the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute and the Charlotte Observer.