Charlotte is planning to close a major gap along its main transit line between uptown and South End, with the addition of an $11 million bridge connecting the Rail Trail to uptown.
Pedestrians and bicyclists cruising along the wide footpath that runs for miles alongside the Blue Line light rail currently meet an unceremonious end to the path just short of uptown, near the Interstate 277 overpass. The bridge that was planned to carry them into uptown was cut from the Blue Line's plans before it opened in 2007 to save money.
"Unfortunately, in some projects budget constraints come into play, and we had to value-engineer that key connection out of that project," Dan Gallagher, deputy director of the Charlotte Department of Transportation, told City Council on Monday. "From 2006 to 2018, you really haven't been able to get as a bicyclist or pedestrian from South End into center city."
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To get to uptown, users have to leave the Rail Trail and go along a narrow sidewalk on Morehead Street, then take a bridge over I-277 alongside whooshing traffic. Despite its abrupt end, the Rail Trail is on pace to see more than 600,000 users this year, with more on the way.
"With all the development happening, it's hard to tell what's the limit for that," said Gallagher.
The missing connection will be built mostly with public funds, said former city manager Ron Kimble, who consults with the city on economic development. Much of the money is leftover proceeds from the sale of excess land around the I-277 interchanges, which developers bought to build a Whole Foods, hotels and more than 1,600 apartments.
After I-277, the Rail Trail would connect through the Charlotte Convention Center, which is planned to undergo a $110 million renovation starting next year.
Under the proposed plan, the city would pay $3.1 million, the N.C. Department of Transportation would pay $3.3 million and Mecklenburg County would kick in $3.1 million. Charlotte Center City Partners is seeking to raise $1.5 million through private groups, nonprofits and grants.
Kimble said the NCDOT has committed to funding the project. City Council and Mecklenburg commissioners will consider their parts of the funding request through their budgets, which are up for votes this month.
Estimates to build the bridge have already increased from $7 million a few years ago, Kimble said, to the current $11 million, due to rising labor and material costs.
"The longer we wait to build a bridge like this, the more costly it's going to become," Kimble warned.
City Council members were receptive to the idea on Monday.
"I think this connection is incredibly critical," said Larken Egleston.