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Transportation Officials Talk Light Rail To York County

CATS Blue Line train

People who need to commute between Charlotte and Fort Mill or Rock Hill currently have the option of Charlotte transit bus service that makes limited runs during rush hours. But another idea, a light rail system has been gaining attention in recent months.

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster mentioned it in the spring as the state lobbied for the Carolina Panthers to move their headquarters and practice facilities to York County. Regional transportation planners are also looking at the light rail idea. David Hooper, director of the Rock Hill-Fort Mill Area Transportation Study joined WFAE’s Mark Rumsey to talk about the idea. 

David Hooper
Credit Sarafina Wright
David Hooper, director, Rock Hill-Fort Mill Area Transportation Study

Mark Rumsey: Mr. Hooper, good afternoon. 

David Hooper: Well good afternoon. 

Rumsey: Why is the light rail idea getting more attention now?

Hooper: Well I think fundamentally it's based on the daily driver experience. I mean when we're in our vehicles we all see the levels of traffic congestion rising and I think there's a real growing sense that there's going to need to be an expanded range of options as the region continues to grow.

Rumsey: I know that a decade or so ago there was a transit master plan for York County that identified bus rapid transit service between downtown Rock Hill and then connecting to the CATS light rail line in Pineville. What has changed over that time?

Hooper: Certainly, as you mentioned we completed that back in 2007 and it did indeed identify bus rapid transit as the preferred alternative after looking at about six different options. And it identified the U.S. 21 corridor where our route would link up with the light rail station in Pineville. Now since that time, there's a couple of things we would want to look at and explain about light rail today. One, we have to recognize that 13 years have passed and there's been a lot of growth and a lot of changes, so we need to update our relevant planning documents. We'd also need to look at whether bus rapid transit continues to be the preferred alternative or whether light rail is a better option given the operating conditions we have today. 

Rumsey: So the Carolina Panthers as we mentioned are relocating some facilities to York County. And this talk of light rail being renewed seems to have been kind of congruent with that. How much of this interest is being driven right now by the anticipated move of the Panthers to the Rock Hill area?

Hooper: You know a moment ago, I talked about the increasing growth in the region and that's really the foundation of moving toward a rapid transit alternative linking the Rock Hill, Tega Cay, Fort Mill area with Charlotte. But the announcement from the Panthers has certainly accelerated that discussion. You know it will be a significant facility and it will be adjacent to I-77 and so that just adds just one more layer, one more factor that supports having an additional mode choice for the region's drivers.

Rumsey: And David Tepper the multibillionaire owner of the Panthers. Is he applying some pressure for this to happen?

Hooper: Well I think he's been vocal about his support for this and I believe he thinks it makes sense, but I'm not aware of any direct involvement. I think the work that I do is fundamentally based on land use decisions that have been made, levels of congestion on the interstate, number of drivers we've got going in and out of the region. That's fundamentally what drives the formal planning process.

Rumsey: In terms of how this all would be paid for there are many parts that go into that with local funding, federal funding and so on. Would the possibility of some sort of local transit tax be something York County would need to look at?

Hooper: I do. There’s always a federal component that’s apart of supporting all forms of transit. But realistically I would say having a dedicated sales tax for transit is something that deserves serious consideration and will probably be needed to make this happen. 

Rumsey: How much do you think?

Hooper: That I do not know, but I think having a dedicated commitment specifically for transit will be important, not just for the costs associated with transit but in an environment that's growing so rapidly there is a lot of competitive pressures over how much goes to transit versus road widening, versus new bridges and other things. I think this is such a significant investment being made you'd want to have a dedicated separated source of funding to advance that.

Rumsey: How would you characterize these discussions at this time? Early stage? How would you describe it?

Hooper: Well it's an early stage at this point. Because I've had the outreach to FTA. I'll be meeting with our folks again and getting their response to that. But ultimately we're going to get into updating this study and that will typically take about a year and then maybe even 18 months. And then from there hopefully CATS and Centralina COG will be able to initiate and complete the regional transit engagement series and we can blend those two things together and then see what the next steps will be for public outreach and engagement on the recommendations that come out of that.

Rumsey: David Hooper is the director of the Rock Hill-Fort Mill Area Transportation study or RFATS. Mr. Hooper thanks a lot for talking with us.

Hooper: Well thank you for the invitation. I enjoyed being here. 

Mark Rumsey grew up in Kansas and got his first radio job at age 17 in the town of Abilene, where he announced easy-listening music played from vinyl record albums.