Living Here Guide

Planes, trains, automobiles in Charlotte: Getting around

As Charlotte continues to grow, those building infrastructure for getting from Point A to Point B are working hard to keep pace, with plans for new light rail, more highway lanes and an expanded airport.

All the change has led to some headaches: Congestion at the airport, traffic jams around the southern portion of Interstate 485, businesses closed or relocated to make way for the new light rail extension. Charlotte’s planners promise that the pain will be worth the gain – but there’s plenty of short-term discomfort.

Here’s a look at some of the region’s most prominent transportation projects.

Charlotte Douglas

International Airport

More than in most cities, Charlotte’s airport is the city’s pride and crown jewel. Stick around long enough, and you’ll hear city planners and business leaders wax rhapsodic about the wonders of having a huge hub in a small city. Charlotte Douglas is the second-busiest hub for American Airlines, the world’s largest carrier, meaning residents have access to a network of 150 nonstop destinations.

The airport saw 43.5 million passengers in 2013, making it the eighth-busiest in the nation. But about 80 percent of those passengers were connecting from one flight to another, not starting or stopping their trips in Charlotte.

Charlotte Douglas also got four new seasonal flights to Europe – Barcelona, Manchester, Lisbon and Brussels – but received word it will lose American’s daily flights to Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. The airport is primarily a domestic hub, with domestic travelers accounting for 94 percent of passengers.

A new hourly parking deck and new entrance roadway are supposed to be open by the end of 2014, and airport officials say that will ease many of the traffic woes that have been plaguing Charlotte Douglas. But the construction isn’t close to being done.

In 2015, airport officials expect to start work on a new, wider road in front of the terminal, as well as renovating almost the entire terminal interior and starting construction on a new domestic concourse with a dozen additional gates. The airport also plans to build a new runway in the coming years.

So what airport officials have been saying will still hold true in the coming year: Leave extra time if you’re trying to catch a flight.

Light rail, streetcar

and commuter rail

Charlotte’s Lynx Blue Line light rail has grown in popularity since it opened in 2007. But the service remains limited in scope, providing transportation from I-485 north to uptown. Work is underway on a 9.4-mile extension that will run through the NoDa neighborhood and to the UNC-Charlotte campus.

The Charlotte Area Transit System broke ground on the Blue Line extension in 2013, and the train is supposed to be up and running in 2017.

Uptown, you’ll probably notice construction and new tracks for the Gold Line, a streetcar that will take people east across uptown, from the Charlotte Transportation Center through the Elizabeth neighborhood to Novant Health’s hospital. The 1.5-mile line, which cost $37 million, is supposed to start service in 2015.

The next phase of the Gold Line streetcar project – which has been controversial, due to its cost and corruption allegations tied to Charlotte’s former mayor, Patrick Cannon – is expected to run west past Johnson C. Smith University and northeast past the hospital toward Central Avenue. The 2.5-mile extension would cost $126 million, and could start running in late 2019 if the city secures funding and construction goes according to plan.

Another proposed rail project, the Red Line commuter train to Mooresville, appears dead in the water. CATS had planned to share existing tracks with the Norfolk Southern cargo railroad to save money on the $416 million project. But Norfolk Southern recently told CATS that it can’t use the rails, which would likely make the Red Line too expensive to build.

Roads

It might surprise you if you’re moving here from New York, Los Angeles, Miami or Washington, D.C., but traffic in Charlotte is a frequent point of annoyance, especially for commuters who use Interstates 77 and 485.

Plans are in the works to finish the northern portion of the I-485 loop by the end of the year, completing the city’s outerbelt after decades of planning, waiting and building. The state is also working to widen the southern portion of I-485, adding a lane each way from I-77 to Rea Road, another project that’s supposed to be finished in December.

But experts have cautioned that the I-485 widening could actually worsen congestion on the outerbelt and I-77, by inducing more drivers to use the overburdened roads.

Widening I-77 is an even thornier issue. A project to add more lanes on the crowded stretch from uptown to the South Carolina could cost more than $1 billion. And while the state plans to widen the northern stretch of I-77, many are still opposed to the method: Toll lanes.

Cintra Infraestructuras, a private company based in Spain, would build the toll lanes for a cost of $655 million, with the state paying $88 million. The project would add another lane each way for most of the road’s 26-mile corridor from Charlotte to Mooresville. Cintra would collect the toll money for 50 years, with tolls for a one-way trip the whole way reaching almost $12 during rush hour. The lanes are scheduled to open in 2018.

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