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Revised transit plan would scrap half of Silver Line, Matthews mayor says

Change could be coming to the Metropolitan Transit Commission, which helps govern the Charlotte Area Transit System
Steve Harrison
The Charlotte Area Transit System may not be able to build the 26-mile Silver Line light rail under a new transit proposal being considered. The proposal would cap the total expenditure on new rail projects at about 40% of the revenues from a new, one-cent sales tax.

A revised transit plan is showing signs of life, with Charlotte-area leaders saying the prospect of a comprehensive package of rail, bus and road projects has never been closer after years of delays.

There’s new progress on long-stalled efforts to win approval from the state legislature and to secure the rights to the Red Line railroad tracks to north Mecklenburg. But the updated plan seems unlikely to include everything Charlotte leaders want — most notably, money to build the full Silver Line, the 26-mile light rail line that was the centerpiece of earlier efforts.

That’s because new legislation local leaders are proposing would cap the spending of new sales tax money on rail transit at 40% of total revenues. Under previous estimates, rail accounted for 80% of the costs, giving CATS much more to build rail lines.

The change could help the sales tax gain support in the Republican-controlled General Assembly, whose leaders have repeatedly told Charlotte that any transportation plan needs to focus on roads. Their support is necessary to put the sales tax before the voters in a referendum.

But the new rail spending limit could force a major downsizing of the Silver Line, originally envisioned to run from Matthews to the airport, which is the most expensive item on the city’s wish list. Matthews Mayor John Higdon told WFAE in an interview on Thursday morning that Charlotte City Manager Marcus Jones told Matthews officials two weeks ago that the city would have to forgo building the portion of the Silver Line between uptown and Matthews.

‘Raw deal’ for Matthews

Regional leaders have been holding discussions behind the scenes on how to allocate money from a sales tax increase. But at a pair of public meetings this week, details of some of those discussions spilled out into the open. Higdon, at a meeting of a regional transportation planning group on Wednesday, criticized what he said was the decision to replace a portion of the Silver Line with bus service.

“I think Matthews is getting the shaft in this deal,” he said. “… We spent thousands of hours planning for a train, and at the last second [were] told, ‘No, sorry, we will give you a bus.’ … We are getting a really, really raw deal in Matthews.”

He said in a later interview that Matthews officials were told the other portion of the Silver Line, between uptown and the airport area, would be funded, along with other parts of the previous transit plan.

Map of east-west rail line
City of Charlotte
Silver Line planning documents
The 26-mile Silver Line, envisioned as a large portion of the city’s transit plans over the last several years, could be curtailed under a new plan that would cap funding for local rail.

Charlotte is also expecting to win state and federal grants to help build its rail lines, just as it did with the Lynx Blue Line in 2007 and the Lynx Blue Line extension in 2018. Even with outside help, though, there wouldn’t be enough money to build and operate the Red Line, Silver Line, second Blue Line extension and Gold Line streetcar.

Republican City Council member Tariq Bokhari said at Tuesday’s City Council meeting that a majority of regional leaders had reached an agreement in which 40% of the sales tax money would be spent on rail transit. Details of that agreement have not been made publicly available. It’s expected to be part of the legislation that would allow a sales tax referendum.

Bokhari said in an interview Wednesday that another 40% of the sales tax money would be dedicated to roads, and the remaining 20% for the bus system and bus-type infrastructure, as well as projects like micromobility. The Charlotte Area Transit System wants to invest in on-demand services that would take riders directly to their destination within defined zones.

Ed Driggs, the other Republican City Council member, confirmed to WFAE on Wednesday that the city is coming up with new allocations for the sales tax money. He said rail transit would be limited to around 40% of the sales tax revenue.

Roads-first plan

Driggs, who chairs the city’s transportation committee, said the city is making the changes because of what Republican legislative leaders like House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate Leader Phil Berger have said publicly about the city’s plan — and their preference for a "roads-first" approach.

“We have to adjust,” Driggs said.

Bokhari said the new spending framework doesn’t necessarily mean the Silver Line won’t be built.

“Forty percent is still a lot of money for rail,” he said. “None of us are getting completely what we want.”

He added: “And while some might say the Silver Line is dead, I think it’s a fair argument to say there are multiple ways to skin the cat and no one needs to sit back and say, ‘All is lost now.’ ”

But Higdon, the Matthews mayor, is livid about the proposal.

"I think one of the reasons folks in Matthews aren’t dancing in the streets is that we have planned to have a train come to our town," he said during a MTC meeting Wednesday. "And we were told in the last couple of weeks that was going to happen. We’ll give you a bus."

Higdon said he would tell Matthews residents to vote against a transit tax increase.

"I think Matthews is getting the shaft in this deal," he said. "And I would have hoped that this group would have helped advocate on behalf of Matthews since we have planned for 30 years all of our land-use (around the Silver Line.) We spent thousands of hours planning for a train and at the last second we were told, 'No sorry we’ll give you a bus.' And no one in this room can look me in the face and say the transit-oriented development of a bus is equivalent to a train."

Charlotte has not done detailed cost estimates for its $13.5 billion transportation plan — first presented almost four years ago — but it has been clear that roughly 80% of the money would be spent on rail transit.

The city estimated earlier this decade that the 26-mile Silver Line would cost roughly $8 billion. That project’s cost would almost certainly be higher if a detailed assessment was done today, due to rapid increases in construction costs seen in highway and transit projects across the nation.

Under those estimates, the Silver Line alone would comprise 60% of sales tax revenue, meaning it would already exceed the city’s proposed 40% cap on rail transit.

The Silver Line is not the only rail project the city is considering.

  • The highest priority is the Red Line commuter rail line from uptown to Mooresville. That project was part of the city’s original 2030 plan, which was created roughly two decades ago. Charlotte is negotiating with Norfolk Southern about using the freight railroad’s tracks. City Manager Marcus Jones said Tuesday night that those talks are progressing. The city’s old cost estimate for the Red Line was roughly $700 million. It’s likely the cost will exceed $1 billion if construction were to begin later this decade.
  • Charlotte also wants to extend the Lynx Blue Line 5.5 miles south to Ballantyne from the I-485/South Boulevard station. The extension would add five new stations. The city hasn’t done a cost estimate, but that project would likely exceed $1 billion, based on the cost of similar transit projects nationwide.
  • And Charlotte also wants to finish the Gold Line streetcar by adding six more miles to the east and to the west. Based on how much the city spent building the first two segments, finishing the project would likely cost between $500 million and $1 billion.
    That means the proposed rail projects would cost in total at least $10.5 billion. That would require some tough choices from the Metropolitan Transit Commission, or whatever transit governing body is created in the future. The city has said it wants to create a regional transit authority if the sales tax is increased.

Bokhari said the new money allocation was decided after numerous meetings with the managers of the six towns who are members of the MTC. Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio was also involved. The county commission would also have to approve a sales tax referendum to fund the plan, and voters from the six county towns would likely play a critical role in the outcome when the plan went up for a vote.
Members of the city’s business community, including Atrium chief executive Gene Woods, were also involved in the discussions.

It’s possible the city could ask Republicans in the General Assembly to approve a bill in the current short session that would grant the city permission to place the sales tax on a future ballot as a referendum.

Jones said Tuesday night that Mecklenburg voters could be asked to approve the tax in November 2025.

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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.