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In a reversal, CATS now says Silver Line has most passengers by avoiding heart of uptown

A light rail train
Steve Harrison
Passengers switching between the Blue Line and the proposed Silver Line would have to walk two blocks.

The Charlotte City Council’s transportation committee voted unanimously Monday to build the Silver Line light rail around uptown rather than bring the train through the heart of center city, as some transit advocates prefer.

The vote came after the Charlotte Area Transit System presented new ridership projections for the train that differed significantly from what it presented to City Council members in June.

Last summer, CATS said the route that would provide the most ridership would be to build the Silver Line in two segments and use existing Blue Line and Gold Line tracks. That alignment was projected to carry 35,100 daily passengers by 2050.

The route that would skirt the edge of uptown — and run along the Brookshire Freeway and 11th Street — was projected to have 29,200 daily riders. It would cost $8.4 billion — about $1 billion more than using the existing tracks.

But on Monday, CATS presented new projections.

The route along the Brookshire Freeway and 11th Street would carry 31,400 daily passengers, according to the new analysis. That is slightly more than the two options that would use Blue Line and Gold Line tracks.


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It’s unclear what changed. Brent Cagle, the interim CATS chief executive, said he did not know.

“I’ll have to get you an answer,” Cagle told WFAE. “That’s a question I need to dig into with Andy Mock and the project team.”

Mock, the senior project manager for the Silver Line, said planners changed the parameters in their ridership model to be more accurate.

“The ridership model is always under refinement,” Mock said. “There’s additional refinements to the underlying model, the bus network may change. It’s a snapshot in time.”

Last summer, CATS said having the Silver Line share the Lynx Blue Line tracks would attract more riders.
Last summer, CATS said having the Silver Line share the Lynx Blue Line tracks would attract more riders.

Long-running debate

The Silver Line’s route through uptown highlights a debate as to whether Charlotte’s rail transit should prioritize ridership or development.

The city’s economic development director, Tracy Dodson, has said that the Silver Line can be a catalyst for empty land on the edge of uptown, just as the Blue Line led to a building boom in South End.

But former CATS executive Ron Tober, who led the transit system 15 years ago, said ridership should be the priority and the train needs to get as close to Trade and Tryon as possible.

“I don't’ think that their expectation of development is going to occur along 11th Street,” Tober said.

The group Sustain Charlotte also wants CATS to prioritize ridership. And former Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt has said she is concerned that people won’t walk two blocks to switch from Silver Line to Blue Line trains when it’s cold, hot or raining.

City Council member James Mitchell speaks during Monday's transportation committee meeting.
Steve Harrison/WFAE
City Council member James Mitchell speaks during Monday's transportation committee meeting.

Urban Land Institute weighs in

Even though funding for the Silver Line remains in limbo — the city needs authorization to levy a 1-cent sales tax from the state legislature and local voters to pay for it — the route has been a subject of debate. CATS and city officials have long supported the northern route along the Brookshire Freeway and 11th Street.

But last year the Urban Land Institute warned the city that building the train there might be a mistake. It said that route might not produce enough passengers, and that the federal government might not fund the train if ridership was low.

CATS then told the transportation committee in June that using the Blue Line and Gold Line tracks would produce more riders than the Brookshire Freeway/11th Street route. Transit officials appeared enthusiastic about the possible new alignment.

The Urban Land Institute says the proposed Silver Line should share tracks with the Blue Line through uptown. The current plan calls for the Silver Line to avoid most of center city.

But in December, CATS officials and Dodson began steering City Council members back to their original plan.

At the time, WFAE questioned why CATS did not provide ridership data. The city said in an email that it wasn’t ready.

Eiselt said Monday she wants to know why CATS pulled back from the ULI recommendation.

“The former CATS chief executive (John Lewis) said the ULI recommendation had merit,” she said. “What happened?”

WFAE asked Mock whether CATS changed its model to produce ridership projections that would bolster the route along 11th Street and the Brookshire Freeway. He said it had not.

“That is not true,” Mock said. “We are following the facts wherever they took us, we followed the model wherever it took us, we questioned the modeling team to make sure we had the best information possible.”

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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.