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Transit Time is a weekly newsletter for Charlotte people who leave the house. Cars, buses, light rail, bikes, scooters ... if you use it to get around the city, you can read about it here. Transit Time is produced in partnership among WFAE, The Charlotte Ledger and the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute. Subscribe here.

Charlotte's Proposed Light Rail Line Would Have An Airport Stop That's Not At The Airport. Why?

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Steve Harrison/WFAE
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A light rail line from Matthews to Belmont will have a stop about one mile from the terminal at Charlotte Douglas Airport.

Charlotte’s proposed $6.3 billion Silver Line includes an airport station. But the light rail stop would be a mile from the Charlotte Douglas International Airport terminal.

That’s caused pushback from some City Council members and the former transit director, Ron Tober. They ask: Why not bring the light rail line closer to the ticketing area so it’s more convenient for passengers?

The current plan calls for a station on Wilkinson Boulevard. Passengers would get off the train at the airport stop and then take a people mover (which hasn’t been designed yet) or a bus to the terminal.

Last month, Charlotte Area Transit System's chief executive John Lewis discussed the Silver Line airport station with the City Council’s transportation committee — and why, in his view, a train near the terminal won’t work.

Here's what he said:

  • He said bringing the train close to the terminal would be a “fatal flaw” that would “create a potential security concern in relation to blast radius in protecting the railroad and runway assets.” He also said that a train would likely enter Federal Aviation Administration-mandated “Runway Protection Zones” that are meant to be clear of roads or buildings.
  • Having the station on Wilkinson Boulevard would help redevelop the area and would save money. It would also make it easier for the light rail to reach Gaston County.
  • Lewis also said that CATS doesn’t anticipate many passengers will ever use the train to get to the airport. He said airport workers will mostly use the station, and they already take a shuttle to the terminal now.

Here is a screenshot from a presentation Lewis gave to City Council. It was meant to show the difficulties of bringing the light rail close to the airport:

airportmap.JPG
City of Charlotte
The Charlotte Area Transit System said it would be difficult to bring a train to the airport terminal because of Federal Aviation Administration Runway Protection Zones. But it's possible to avoid those areas.

Former CATS chief executive Tober said asking people to get on a second train is too much hassle and that “a lot of people aren’t going to use it to get there.”

Tober added: “I think there are some red herrings being thrown around.”

The Silver Line is part of a $13 billion transit plan. To pay for it, the city would need to raise the sales tax by a penny.

A Difficult Layout

To start, it’s important to understand that the layout of Charlotte Douglas International Airport makes it difficult to bring a train close to the terminal.

To reach the ticketing area, the airport access roads are in the shape of a horseshoe. Any train that wants to reach the terminal would have to follow those roads, taking a turn to the south and then a turn to the north.

And there isn’t much physical space to bring a train adjacent to the terminal.

But what about a compromise plan that would bring the Silver Line inside the airport — but with a station just north of the two daily parking decks?

That would give the train more room to get in and out. Passengers would be about 2,200 feet from the terminal. That’s about four-tenths of a mile — but passengers walk that distance now when they go from one end of the E Concourse to the A Concourse.

(The airport has also discussed one day building a future terminal/check-in area for passengers. A station north of the daily parking decks could be very close.)

Here is a homemade map of that alignment, with the train in blue and a walkway to the terminal in orange:

airportalignment.jpg
Google Maps
The light-rail line could come within about 2,200 feet of the airport terminal. Passengers could walk from the station.

Are The Reasons Valid?

So let’s go through the reasons listed as to why a train to the airport wouldn’t work.

Lewis, the CATS chief executive, said FAA Runway Protection Zones would make it difficult to bring a train close to the terminal. But those RPZs extend only 2,500 feet from the end of runways. That would not interfere with the Silver Line alignment.

Lewis also talked about the difficulties in crossing the Norfolk-Southern freight railroad tracks that run east-west just north of the runways. Lewis said CATS would have to either build a bridge over the railroad tracks or build a tunnel under them.

Here’s a photo with the railroad in yellow:

airport3.JPG
Google Maps
A light-rail bridge over the railroad tracks (in yellow) could follow the same path and height as the existing roadway.

But a light rail bridge could follow the same path and design of the existing access roads used by vehicles. That wouldn’t be close to the flight paths or the Runway Protection Zones.

Lewis said another option would be a tunnel under the tracks. He said that “would also add significant costs to the project and still create a potential security concern in relation to blast radius in protecting the railroad and runway assets.”

Aviation director Haley Gentry was asked about a light rail line that follows the path of the access roads. Would a train be more of a security threat than a van or truck?

“From an airport perspective, there’s not a lot of difference there,” Gentry said. “We would not treat those differently, if that makes sense.”

CATS also said it doesn’t anticipate the Silver Line enticing many people to ride the train to the airport. One reason is that it’s so close to uptown — about seven miles — so the thinking is that it will always be easier for someone to use Uber or a taxi and reach the terminal.

Lewis said that a station near Wilkinson Boulevard will be better for economic development. (The flip side to that argument is that you can have both — a station on Wilkinson before making the turn south to the airport terminal.)

The economic development argument bothers at-large City Council member Julie Eiselt, who chairs the transportation committee.

“This is either about moving people around efficiently or it’s about economic development,” she said. “I’m not sure it’s about both. And that’s what concerns me.”

Council member Ed Driggs agrees: “If the goal was to serve the airport, I don’t know why we aren’t serving the airport.”

The Silver Line alignment has the train skirting uptown and running along the Brookshire Freeway. There aren’t many people or jobs nearby, but CATS says it is planning for the future.

What The Airport Says

One theory on why the light rail to the airport has been blocked is that CLT is worried about losing parking revenue.

Gentry is adamant that’s not the case.

“That’s not our concern,” she said.

Gentry addressed various problems presented by CATS, as well as the alignment that only goes to the daily parking decks. She said that could be done and agreed that it’s less obtrusive than previous plans.

But she said the airport still doesn’t want it going close to the terminal.

“I can tell you that the airport felt strongly very early on that we wanted to do whatever to protect our expansion capabilities,” Gentry said. “We never said 'never,' but we know the minute we brought a structure like that into the inner workings of places, that we knew had the potential in 10 years to look very different, that we were making some choices there.”

In summary, the airport is constantly expanding and changing. And it doesn’t want a multi-billion dollar train in its way.

Transit Time is produced in partnership among WFAE, The Charlotte Ledger and the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute. Subscribe here. Other affiliated Charlotte newsletters and podcasts include: The Charlotte Ledger Business Newsletter and Ways of Life newsletter (obituaries), available from The Charlotte Ledger; WFAE's Inside Politics newsletter; and The UNC Charlotte Urban Institute newsletter and the Future Charlotte podcast from the Urban Institute.