It's still years in the future, but a proposed rail line from uptown Charlotte to the airport now has a preferred route: along Wilkinson Boulevard. That plan was announced Wednesday evening, and officials say it may also go well beyond the airport to Gaston County.
Charlotte Area Transit System picked the Wilkinson Boulevard corridor over a route along West Boulevard. It also ruled out an alternative north out of uptown, along Alleghany Street to Wilkinson Boulevard.
“Wilkinson is a straight shot. It hits closer to the front door, to that kind of area of the airport,” CATS planner Jason Lawrence said.
CATS has also decided to use a light rail called the Silver Line, not a streetcar, on the route.
“So we would have a station near the airport and we would coordinate with them on some kind of airport people mover, whatever form that may take. And that would take you to the terminal,” Lawrence said.
That Silver Line station would likely be on Wilkinson Boulevard at Josh Birmingham Parkway. City Aviation Director Brent Cagle said the route "plays well" with the airport's own long-term growth plans.
“We've done extensive work with consultants over the last couple years to really envision commercial development around the Wilkinson Boulevard corridor and the main entrance of the airport,” Cagle said. “And we think that having the Silver Line come right along Wilkinson will really help us with that development plan.”
As currently envisioned, the Silver Line would run from the town of Matthews southeast of Charlotte to uptown, and west to the airport. Local planning officials are also looking at extending it across the Catawba River, to Belmont, in Gaston County. They're also lobbying the North Carolina Department of Transportation to include space for rail on a new Route 74 bridge that's being planned over the Catawba River.
“We have a large population of residents that commute daily, so that would certainly give another alternative transportation link not only into the Charlotte area for work but also to the airport,” Shelley DeHart, the planning director in Belmont, said. “We think that's a great addition.”
Make that a potential addition. The rail line could cost a couple of billion dollars — money CATS would have to raise from state and federal funds — and a possible sales tax increase.
There’s no estimated date for completion of the line.
CATS planner Jason Lawrence said extending the Silver Line to Gaston County would not be a stretch. Belmont is 10 miles from uptown — about the same length as both the original Lynx Blue Line south section and the northeast extension that opened last year.
DeHart said a light rail line would help reduce congestion from commuters who drive through the town to get to Interstate 85 every day. She also said it would help redevelop the Wilkinson Boulevard corridor.
"It's our focus area for economic development and the opportunity of having light rail will help redevelop with more transit-oriented development that typically follows light rail planning,” DeHart said.
The choice of Wilkinson Boulevard is a disappointment for those who favored the West Boulevard route. Lawrence said CATS also plans more frequent bus service there, to the airport and the planned River District development west of the airport.