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Charlotte moves toward a northern route for the Silver Line light rail

An elevated train station
City of Charlotte
A rendering of the proposed Silver Line route and station on 11th Street.

The Charlotte City Council’s transportation committee voted 4-1 Monday to back a route for the Silver Line light-rail that would have it skirt uptown instead of going to the heart of center city.

For several years, the city has had a back-and-forth over how the proposed Silver Line from Matthews to the airport should go through the city's center:

  • Should it run alongside Interstate 277 north of uptown to spur more development?
  • Or should it share the existing Lynx Blue Line or Gold Line streetcar tracks to bring passengers through the center of uptown, and closest to Trade and Tryon?

The northern route has been the city’s preferred plan. The reason: Officials hope to ignite another South End-style building boom in a part of uptown that’s long been underdeveloped.

But earlier this year, the Urban Land Institute proposed the city use the existing Blue Line tracks through uptown. Several rail transit systems have lines share tracks, a process known as “interlining.” The city also considered using the existing Gold Line streetcar tracks on Trade Street.

In a presentation to council members, the Charlotte Area Transit System said the northern route would cost about $600 million more than using the Blue Line or Gold Line tracks. The whole Silver Line has been estimated to cost at least $8.1 billion, but that's a preliminary figure.

CATS officials also said the northern route would go closer to where more people live, but would be farther from where they work.

The Gold Line route would pass by about 100,000 jobs, while the Blue Line alignment would go by about 91,000 jobs. The northern route would pass by about 56,000 jobs.

The Charlotte Area Transit System considered three alignments for the proposed Silver Line.
City of Charlotte
The Charlotte Area Transit System considered three alignments for the proposed Silver Line.

But Tracy Dodson, the city’s economic development director, said the northern route could do for the north side of uptown what the original light rail line did for South End.

“If you go back and look at the investment that South End has seen over the last cycle, you are talking about a billion dollars of investment,” Dodson said.

Earlier this year, CATS said the shared Blue Line route would draw higher ridership. The Urban Land Institute said that would make it more likely to receive federal funding, which is crucial for the project to move forward.

Funding questions unexplored

CATS officials did not discuss which route would have the most riders at Monday’s meeting. They also didn’t explore which route would make it most likely to secure federal dollars.

The federal government paid for half of the Lynx Blue Line. If CATS doesn’t receive federal money for the Silver Line, it’s doubtful the project can move forward.

One downside for the northern route is that passengers would either have a 10-15 minute walk to reach Trade and Tryon — or wait a few minutes to catch the Blue Line or Gold Line.

CATS said Monday that if the northern route was built, it would take a passenger 34 minutes to go from the proposed Conference Drive station to the main bus station across from the Spectrum Center.

It would take that passenger 27 minutes on the Blue Line alignment and 25 minutes on the Gold Line alignment.

CATS said the Trade Street route would require the city to rebuild much of the street, only a few years after it was under construction for the Gold Line.

The Blue Line alignment would also mean the Silver Line would be split in two segments. That means a passenger couldn’t take the light rail from Matthews to the airport without changing trains.

Until the city identifies a local funding source, the discussion is largely hypothetical. Charlotte still hasn’t found a way to pay for the Silver Line. It will likely need Republican state lawmakers, and then voters, to approve a penny sales tax increase.

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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.