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Consultant: To win federal funding, CATS should consider new uptown route for Silver Line

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Charlotte Area Transit System
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The Urban Land Institute said CATS should consider a new route for Silver Line as it passes through uptown.

A new report from an outside consultant says Charlotte transit leaders should consider changing the planned Silver Line light rail route through uptown, in order to attract enough passengers to have a better chance of winning federal funding.

The Urban Land Institute (ULI), a consultant that recently worked with the city and the Charlotte Area Transit System, said in a presentation last week that planners should consider an alternate route that runs closer to the middle of uptown. One potential solution: Running Silver Line trains along a portion of the Blue Line tracks through uptown, a common practice in transit known as “interlining.”

The Silver Line’s proposed path through uptown has been controversial because it would skirt most parts of the center city. People going to Trade and Tryon streets would either walk a half-mile — or walk a block to a Blue Line station and then wait for another train to finish their journey.

Charlotte officials have said the proposed route — running along Interstate 277 north of uptown — is best because it’s less expensive than going through the heart of uptown. They also have said it would spur development in areas where there has been little construction.

Here is a map of that proposed route:

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Urban Land Institute
The Charlotte Area Transit System wants the Silver Line (drawn in purple) to avoid most of center city.

But some transit advocates, like the group Sustain Charlotte and City Council member Julie Eiselt, have questioned the alignment, saying it wouldn’t have a station close to where most people work.

And now the Urban Land Institute agrees, saying CATS should conduct a detailed study of whether the interline route is the best. The transit system's previous analysis, the consultant said, did not estimate costs, ridership or how federal officials would evaluate the project.

The interline option would bring the Silver Line into uptown, along 12th Street. That’s the same path that’s being considered today.

The city wants the Silver Line to cross the Blue Line with a bridge. The interline option would instead merge the Silver Line onto the Blue Line's tracks. For roughly 1.5 miles, the Silver Line and Blue Line would share the same rails. Once the Silver Line left uptown, it would veer to the north at Carson Street. Then it would continue toward the airport.

In transit systems across the world, it’s common for different rail lines to share the same tracks. The Metro in Washington D.C. and the London Underground are two transit systems that do it.

Here is a map of that proposed alignment.

interline.PNG
Urban Land Institute
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The Urban Land Institute says CATS should consider having the Silver Line (pictured in orange) share tracks with the Blue Line.

The interline route would have the Blue Line and Silver Line share the same tracks through uptown.

The ULI said, “Interlining with the Blue Line would increase ridership, reduce cost, and improve the FTA rating.”

The FTA rating is a reference to a score the Federal Transit Administration gives new rail projects to determine if they are worth funding. Having federal support for the Silver Line is crucial because it’s expected to cost at least $6.2 billion. The city wants the federal government to pay for half of the construction costs.

The ULI said having the Silver Line and the Blue Line share the same tracks in uptown would give passengers “direct access to five existing stations in the center of uptown, the most intensive trip generation in the region.”

It also said the alignment would make it easy for passengers to switch from the Blue Line to the Silver Line, “which would also improve ridership.”

And it said it would be cheaper, though it didn’t provide an estimate of how much could be saved.

Will CATS reconsider?

Eiselt, who chairs the City Council's transportation committee, has questioned whether the city’s proposed Silver Line route makes sense.

She said the ULI’s “focus on ridership reflects what many in the public have been saying: that we need to align the Blue Line and Silver Line stops if people are going to use that transfer point to come in and out of uptown.”

Eiselt, however, is leaving City Council this summer.

And it’s unclear whether CATS and city leaders will consider the ULI recommendations. City officials like former planning director Taiwo Jaiyoeba, who is now city manager in Greensboro, had pushed for the northern route to spark economic development.

The report said there are some disadvantages to the interline route. One is that trains would cross the heart of uptown more frequently, lowering railroad crossing gates and disrupting traffic.

Another downside is that the interline route would also avoid the Gateway train station that’s under construction near Truist Field. The city wants the Gateway station to become a transit hub, home to Amtrak, the streetcar, inter-city buses and the Silver Line.

Tunnel also considered

The Urban Land Institute also considered other ways for the Silver Line to run through uptown.

Former CATS ChiefExecutive Ron Tober has said a tunnel is the best option for ridership, even though it would likely add $1 billion to the Silver Line’s cost.

The ULI said it studied a tunnel under Trade Street, where the Gold Line streetcar operates.

It wrote: “We agree with CATS’ assessment that a Gold Line tunnel introduces significant cost and schedule risks, construction impacts to uptown and the Gold Line, that the tunnel portals would add barriers to uptown, and that the tunnel would significantly increase costs.”

The Urban Land Institute did not study the feasibility of building a tunnel in a different location, such as under 7th Street.

Airport route also questioned

The Silver Line would run from Matthews to the airport.

The current alignment for the Silver Line would have a stop on Wilkinson Boulevard, which is one mile from the terminal. The city’s plan is to have shuttle buses or an automated train to bring travelers from the train station to the terminal.

Tober, the former transit director, questions whether people will ride the train to the airport if the train doesn't bring them close to the terminal. He said they may decide to drive to the airport instead.

The ULI agreed. It wrote that the Silver Line should have a “direct airport connection.”

Airport Director Haley Gentry has said the airport wants to maintain flexibility for future expansions.

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.

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.