As the first leader of the Charlotte Area Transit System, Ron Tober opened the Lynx Blue Line in 2007.
Tober is now a contractor for the consultant firm WSP, which recently advised CATS on how to finish its 2030 transit plan. WSP gave CATS options for how to bring an east-west light-rail line through the center city.
Tober thinks CATS should build a tunnel in uptown that would bring the train into the heart of downtown. Instead, the transit system has chosen a different option — routing the train along Interstate 277 north of uptown.
"I’m very much concerned about that," Tober said. "It’s remote from the center of downtown and certainly remote from the southern portions of the existing downtown area. I worry what the potential ridership for that alignment is going to be."
Tober is not alone.
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Shannon Binns of Sustain Charlotte thinks fewer people will take a train that makes them have a long walk – or change trains and ride the Blue Line. In a recent interview, Binns stood on 11th Street, right along the train's proposed path. Charlotte’s skyscrapers were behind him, seven blocks away.
“I would think for people coming from Matthews and east Charlotte in general, I think this alignment will be less attractive," Binns said. "We’ve actually spoken to a number of people who have said that that being dropped off at the edge of uptown is not near as attractive as being dropped off at the heart of uptown.”
City Council member Julie Eiselt has also voiced concern about the plan.
"It’s not having a stop in uptown that I’m struggling to understand," Eiselt said.
She said she's worried about having a train whose uptown stops are a 15-minute walk from the Trade and Tryon intersection. Council members did not vote on the 2030 plan — that was the job of the Metropolitan Transit Commission.
CATS Chief Executive John Lewis said it’s complicated, and there are a lot of factors that make a tunnel less desirable.
First, some basics:
CATS wants to build a rail line – known as the Silver Line — from Matthews to uptown, and then continuing to the airport and possibly Belmont.
One problem is how to get the line through uptown.
One option was a tunnel, running under Trade Street. That would have brought commuters into the heart of uptown. But that’s more complicated and more expensive, increasing the cost of the Silver Line by about 25 percent. That’s an extra $1.5 billion.
Lewis said if the transit system is only focused on moving people, the tunnel is the best option.
"From a purely mobility standpoint, the tunnel was a great alternative for us," Lewis said.
But Lewis said CATS couldn’t look only at mobility. He said CATS is a part of the city of Charlotte and the city has other goals, like economic development. The area around I-277 is mostly empty today.
"And being a part of the city, we had to look at it beyond just the mobility aspect of, how do we move people from one point to another?" Lewis said. "There were the economic development goals, there was supporting affordable housing."
So CATS picked the northern route through uptown. The Silver Line would follow I-277, and then cross over the highway and run along 11th street. It would then turn to the south and run alongside the existing railroad tracks two blocks northwest of Graham Street.
But Binns said that area of uptown will be developed eventually, with or without the train.
In an article for the Web site TransitCenter.org, Kirk Hovenkoetter said putting the Silver Line along I-277 is a mistake.
He said CATS should have one primary focus: What’s the best way to increase ridership? Charlotte has seen dramatic declines in bus ridership, and the Lynx Blue Line hasn’t carried as many people as projected.
"Riders are going to vote with their feet and with their transit passes," he said. "We’re seeing right now in Charlotte that bus ridership has declined nearly 40 percent since 2013. This is one of the biggest drops across the country."
Lewis said there are other factors that make the tunnel a less attractive option. In addition to the cost, it might require the closing of the streetcar, soon after the second phase of the Gold Line opens.
The next step may be to propose ways to pay for the 2030 plan, which will likely cost more than $6 billion. CATS has said a new tax will likely be necessary.
Although the Metropolitan Transit Commission voted last week to support the I-277 route, Binns said there is still time for CATS to study the tunnel option or to make a change.