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Council Members Balk At Spending $50M For New Charlotte Light Rail Study

A LYNX Blue Line Train at 9th Street Station uptown. CATS is trying to figure out how to pay for expanding the transit system north, west and southeast of uptown.
A LYNX Blue Line Train is seen at Ninth Street Station in uptown Charlotte in a file photo.

Charlotte Area Transit System wants to City Council to approve a $50 million design contract so the transit system can know how much a new light rail project will cost. 

But some council members are concerned about spending the money before the city has funding to pay for the 26-mile LYNX Silver Line.  

When Charlotte was planning the original light rail line, the city first asked voters to approve a half-cent sales tax for transit in 1998. With that money in place, the city began spending millions of dollars on design to understand how much the Blue Line would cost. 

But for the Silver Line, CATS wants to do things in reverse. 

Credit CATS
Here's a look at Charlotte Area Transit System plans for the east-west LYNX Silver Line.

It wants City Council to approve a $50 million engineering contract with WSP USA. But CATS hasn’t shared with the public how it might pay for the Silver Line, which would run from Matthews to Charlotte Douglas International Airport – and possibly across the Catawba River into Gaston County. It’s been estimated to cost at least $3 billion. 

That concerned council member Ed Driggs. 

“We can’t commit to $50 million on speculation,” Driggs said. “What assumptions are you making about the amount of federal funding we’re going to get as a result of the federal process?” 

To finish the 2030 transit plan, CATS wants to build the Silver Line and improve express bus service to northern Mecklenburg County. 

CATS has budgeted the $50 million for the WSP contract, but it doesn’t have any money to begin construction. It could ask the General Assembly for permission to place a sales tax increase on the ballot, but it hasn’t talked publicly about doing that. 

Next month, county voters will consider whether to raise the sales tax by a quarter-cent to pay for the arts, parks and greenways and education. That would raise the general sales tax to 7.5%. 

If CATS needs a full cent for the Silver Line, that would raise the county sales tax to 8.5%. 

Council member Justin Harlow said he’s worried about that. 

“From a long-term transit planning standpoint … Mr. Driggs made a quick reference to it … how does the county’s proposal on the sales tax … affect our long-term transit plans?” Harlow said.  

City Manager Marcus Jones said it's too early to say, and that Charlotte is looking at all revenue streams to fund the Silver Line. 

Council members will be asked to approve the $50 million contract later this month. 

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.