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Someday, Regional Buses And Trains Could Run Beyond Mecklenburg

Planners have identified potential corridors for "high-capacity transit," or buses and trains, stretching 40 to 50 miles beyond Charlotte.
Connect Beyond / Charlotte Area Transit System
Planners have identified potential corridors for "high-capacity transit," or buses and trains, stretching 40 to 50 miles beyond Charlotte.

A new planning effort involving Mecklenburg and 11 surrounding counties envisions a network of trains and buses that one day could link Charlotte with smaller cities across the region. But there's still lots of work to do before final routes are decided, and there's still the thornier question of how to pay for it all. 

The $2.2 million Connect Beyond initiative looks at transportation needs between Charlotte and cities 40 to 50 miles away. The 18-month effort is coordinated by the Centralina Regional Council and Metropolitan Transit Commission.

It builds on Charlotte Area Transit System's 2030 Plan, which includes existing and planned light rail and streetcar lines within Mecklenburg County.  

CATS CEO John Lewis
CATS CEO John Lewis

"The next natural step is to figure out how do we broaden that beyond just Mecklenburg County? How do we meet the commuting and mobility needs of our regional partners, who are also important, very important, to the growth and economic wellbeing of our community," CATS CEO John Lewis said during a virtual meeting Wednesday. 

Those partners include cities like Shelby, Gastonia and Lincolnton to the west; Statesville to the north; Concord, Albemarle and Wadesboro to the east; and Rock Hill, South Carolina.

Planners are looking at transportation decades ahead because the area is growing rapidly. The 12-county area's population is expected to increase from 2.6 million now to 4.1 million by 2045.

Jason Wager,  Centralina Regional Council planner
Jason Wager, Centralina Regional Council planner

The Charlotte region will account for two-thirds of North Carolina's overall growth during that time, said Jason Wager, principal planner with the Centralina Regional Council. And York and Lancaster counties in South Carolina have the region's highest growth rates, he said. 

"And as our region continues to grow, access to reliable, efficient and well-connected transportation options is one of the most important factors to ensure everyone could benefit from this growth," Wager said.

Proposed Corridors 

On Wednesday, planners unveiled a map of possible future transit corridors. It shows new corridors or extensions of existing transit lines that stretch from Cleveland County west of Charlotte to Anson and Stanly Counties on the east, and from Iredell County to South Carolina. 

Jorge Luna, transit planner with HDR.
Jorge Luna, transit planner with HDR.

But the map doesn't specify whether those corridors would get commuter or light rail, dedicated bus lanes or commuter express buses.   

"We're not saying it's going to be a particular mode. We're just saying that the corridor is high capacity transit, and there's additional work to be done to identify what mode is the best fit for that particular corridor," said Jorge Luna with the consulting firm HDR, a project manager on the study.

This fall, the group will gather more feedback on the proposed corridors and then this winter pick a series of preferred corridors. Luna said they'll take into account commuting patterns, population growth and where people are more likely to need and use public transit. They'll look at demographics, such as where seniors and low-income residents live, or where people are less likely to have cars. 

Besides main lines using buses and trains, the plan is also to study other modes of transportation like scooters, shared bicycles, carpools and even future autonomous vehicles. 

A year from now, planners hope to be discussing how to implement the plans. 

Based on past plans, the cost could easily reach billions of dollars. Where does that come from? That, said Lewis, "is the million-dollar question."