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With Blue Line Nearly Done, CATS Eyes 3 New Lines Built At Once

File photo of CATS CEO John Lewis
David Boraks
CATS CEO John Lewis spoke at a press conference in December.

CATS announced Monday a seven-month delay for the opening of the light rail Blue Line Extension from uptown to UNC-Charlotte. The line is now scheduled to open next March.  The completion will wrap up more than a decade of work on the light rail line. So what's next for Charlotte Area Transit System? Three more transit lines to be built all at once, says CATS CEO John Lewis. At least that’s his goal. WFAE's David Boraks has more.

CATS' long-term vision is spelled out in a document called the 2030 plan. Last updated in 2006, it calls for developing rapid transit in five corridors stretching out from uptown. 

It's time to update the plan. Lewis thinks three more lines could be under construction by 2030 - the Silver Line southeast to Matthews, the Gold Line west to the airport, and the Red Line north to the Lake Norman area. 

CATS CEO John Lewis wants to build the Red, Gold and Silver lines all at once.
Credit Charlotte Area Transit System
CATS CEO John Lewis wants to build the Red, Gold and Silver lines all at once.

  "The goal is to have them delivered by 2030. That's a goal ... it may be two lines done and a couple under construction. But we want to have all the lines under construction with a targeted date of delivery of 2030," Lewis said in an interview. 

Lewis estimates - and these are back-of-the-envelope kind of estimates - it will cost about $1.5 to $2 billion per corridor, or $5 to $8 billion total. That's based on the $120 million a mile cost of the Blue Line extension. 

"Those costs are relevant, for now. But till we ... draw lines in the corridor, know exactly where the location of the Red Line and the west corridor will be, where potential stations are, these are just best guesses," Lewis said.

The 15-mile Silver Line to Matthews is farthest along. CATS already has a preferred route. It starts uptown, runs alongside Independence Boulevard, then cuts over to Monroe Road for the final leg to Matthews. 

Lewis wants to get both the airport and north lines to the same point so CATS can start to figure out how much they'll all cost. But first it will have to pick routes. 

The Red Line had a preferred route 10 years ago - on Norfolk Southern's little-used "O" line tracks from Charlotte to Mooresville. But then Norfolk Southern decided not to share the tracks. So Lewis says CATS' board - the Metropolitan Transit Commission, or MTC - thinks buying land for a separate corridor is now the way to go.  

"The MTC has right now directed us to look at options where we would be in control of our own destiny there. And so we will be studying an alternative corridor," Lewis said.

As for the airport line: CATS would extend the existing Gold Line streetcar west to the airport, and the planned River District development - and maybe someday into Gaston County. The route would be somewhere along or between West and Wilkinson boulevards.     

Once CATS has preferred routes, it will work on preliminary designs and cost estimates. Then comes the big question: how to pay for it all.  

That won't happen, Lewis said, "until we get into a level of design where we can put a reliable price tag on it and then after that have a very serious discussion with the community about our potential options for paying for these projects. "

That serious discussion will involve a lot of politics. There's no money left in the county's current half-cent sales tax to fund any more lines. The tax potentially could be expanded, though that could be politically troublesome. Some politicians in the Lake Norman area are calling for canceling the existing tax. 

CATS could look for a private partner to help build and finance the project.  And tax increment financing is another option: Any increase in property taxes from new development along the corridors would go to pay for the lines.    

There's also hope for federal funds. President Donald Trump has called for spending a trillion dollars on infrastructure nationwide. The question is whether it will include trains.   

Davidson Mayor John Woods is a member of the MTC. He likes the idea of an all-at-once push for transit around Charlotte. 

"I think it's high time that we look at this seriously and that we find a way to make this work. You know we've been sort of forced in a way to look at it as a corridor by corridor initiative. That is unacceptably slow," Woods said. 

Lewis said he will present his revised 2030 plan to the MTC this May or June. Route studies for the north and airport lines are funded in this year's CATS budget, and will begin this summer. 


Listen to a rebroadcast of our recent interview with John Lewis on "Charlotte Talks" Tuesday morning at 9 on WFAE, or stream it online.


2030 plan on CATS transit planning page, http://charlottenc.gov/cats/transit-planning/2030-plan/

David Boraks is a veteran journalist who covers climate change for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.