Around Town

Forget the toll lanes -- Why isn’t there commuter rail up to Lake Norman?

Will a new Red Line to north Mecklenburg ever be able to join the Lynx Blue Line?

TODD SUMLIN -2007 OBSERVER FILE PHOTO
Will a new Red Line to north Mecklenburg ever be able to join the Lynx Blue Line? TODD SUMLIN -2007 OBSERVER FILE PHOTO Staff Photographer

The City Council gave its reluctant blessing to toll lanes in the Charlotte area Monday night, making the completion of the controversial I-77 toll lanes project pretty likely.

There are arguments for the I-77 toll lanes up to Lake Norman — here’s one from Sustain Charlotte — and arguments against it — here’s one from Widen I-77.

I’m not going to argue for or against the lanes here. Instead, I want to follow up on this line in the Observer article about the toll lane vote that stood out to me:

(Vi) Lyles said north Mecklenburg residents needed to work to create “alternative routes” to and from Charlotte, such as public transit.

There’s a plan for commuter rail up to Lake Norman — using existing tracks — but it basically died a slow death in recent years.

A short history of the LYNX Red Line.

The initial idea

The proposed commuter rail line, part of the 2030 Transit Corridor System Plan, would run 25 miles from uptown Charlotte to an area just south of Mooresville, hitting Huntersville, Cornelius and Davidson along the way.

RedLineroute

Originally, it was supposed to use already existing tracks owned by the Norfolk Southern Corporation.

The new line was projected to have about 5,000 commuters daily by 2030 and expected to cost about $450 million.

One of the expected perks: Reduced congestion on I-77 and N.C. 115.

Where’s the money?

Finding money was always a large part of the problem. At one point there was even a task force — made up of people like Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx and other area mayors — formed to try to find ways to pay for the Red Line.

In 2007, Mecklenburg voters decided to keep a half-cent sales tax for transit, and CATS planned several projects, including the Red Line.

CATS and the state eventually said they could pay for 25 percent each, but that still left them more than $200 million short. They hoped to make up the rest through tax revenue generated along the line.

By 2013, revenue from that half-cent sales tax was $2.3 billion short of projections, partially because of the recession. The revenue that did come from the sales tax was being fully devoted to the Blue Line extension, putting other projects in limbo.

Mecklenburg County growth
John D. Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

What really killed it

Money really became a problem when Norfolk Southern said in 2012 that it didn’t want to share its tracks and CATS had to come up with its own plan.

In 2014, CATS said it could build a rail line beside the existing track. One problem — that would add $215 million to an already unaffordable project.

If the project was on life support already because of funding problems, this is what pulled the plug. A September 2014 story by Ely Portillo called the project “dead in the water.”

I’d love to see it, or something like it, come back to life.

Obviously there were problems in the plan ($$$$$$$), but I think it’s important to at least consider other forms of transportation — whether it be train or light rail or bus rapid transit — when talking about easing traffic congestion. Adding another lane — free or toll — may not always be the answer.

Photos: Todd Sumlin/Charlotte Observer; John D. Simmons/Charlotte Observer. Proposed route from the CATS website.

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