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No mile-long tunnel under uptown: CATS recommends a different route for light rail

After a decade of planning, Charlotte’s light-rail extension finally opens

Passengers cheered and clapped as Charlotte’s light-rail extension left the UNC Charlotte station at 10 a.m. Friday morning, opening the Lynx Blue line after four years of construction.
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Passengers cheered and clapped as Charlotte’s light-rail extension left the UNC Charlotte station at 10 a.m. Friday morning, opening the Lynx Blue line after four years of construction.

The Charlotte Area Transit System is recommending that a new east-west light-rail line run along uptown’s northern edge rather than tunnel under the city’s center, as the system gears up for its next round of an ambitious expansion plan.

Other key recommendations from CATS staff on Wednesday included creating a new bus rapid transit line instead of passenger rail to Mooresville, at least for now; studying how to extend the Blue Line to Ballantyne and Pineville; and building light rail west along Wilkinson Boulevard, past Charlotte Douglas International Airport and across the Catawba River to Belmont.

The plan and staff recommendations will set the stage for a massive push to build more transit in the region. Previous estimates for building out the full 2030 transit plan have pegged the total cost at $5 billion to $7 billion.

The CATS Blue Line extension from uptown to UNC Charlotte opened in March 2018, after four years of construction. The 9.3-mile rail line cost more than $1.1 billion, with the federal government paying half the cost and state and local governments splitting the rest. The rail line is drawing 22,720 customers on an average weekday, below the 33,500 passengers CATS projected.

CATS is also building the second phase of the Gold Line streetcar, running from Central Avenue through uptown and west to Johnson C. Smith University. The $150 million project, with the cost split between the federal and local governments, is scheduled to start service in fall 2020.

One big question: How will the system fund this building boom? The voter-approved, half-cent sales tax in Mecklenburg County brought in $103 million last fiscal year for transit. That’s far short of what the ambitious CATS plan would require, and funding a large expansion would likely need an infusion of federal, state or more local tax money.

Years of planning still lie ahead, as CATS identifies locations for stations, exactly where the rails will go, how much it will cost to acquire the right-of-way and what environmental impacts must be considered. The Metropolitan Transit Commission will consider the recommendations and vote on them at a future meeting.

“This is the first phase,” said CATS CEO John Lewis. “The next phase after that is to begin that level of design.”

Here’s what CATS is recommending for each of the region’s key remaining transit corridors:

North

There’s no way to build light rail or commuter rail from uptown to Mooresville along the original Red Line corridor, long planned to run on Norfolk Southern freight lines, officials said. The company has refused to consider passenger service on its rails along the 30-mile corridor.

“Until this changes, delivering commuter rail in the north corridor will be difficult to do,” said CATS planner Jason Lawrence. “There’s no current path forward.”

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The opening of the Lynx Blue Line Extension on March 16 has boosted CATS ridership. In the first two weeks of the extension, CATS reported the entire rail line averaged 26,000 trips on weekdays. That’s below the projection of about 33,500 trips, but ridership may grow. Observer file

In the short term, CATS will run express buses on the Interstate 77 toll lanes at rush hour when those open later this year, offering a quicker way for workers to get to and from uptown. Over the next five to 10 years, Lawrence said, that service would be expanded to true bus rapid transit, with more frequent service, including nights and weekends, four additional park-and-ride lots, more stations (including some just off exit ramps) and new direct connections to the toll lanes from those stations.

“Right now, we’re in a gray area,” said Lawrence. More detailed planning is needed to advance the project and estimate a total cost for bus rapid transit, as well as seek federal funds.

In the long term, CATS still hopes to build a passenger rail line north to Mooresville.

East and west

The Silver Line has been planned to run largely along Independence Boulevard to Matthews, and that recommendation remains in place. To the west, CATS is seeking to build out the light rail along Wilkinson Boulevard. Routes along Alleghany and Tuckaseegee roads were discarded, as was the option of using a streetcar instead of light rail for the west.

The airport could connect to the new light rail line with a people-mover conveyance. The light rail would then run across the Catawba River, where the N.C. Department of Transportation is planning to replace a bridge that dates to 1935. That gives CATS a chance to include light rail in the project.

“It’s being replaced, so we get a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Lawrence. The 10 miles from Belmont to uptown would be similar to the length of the first two Blue Line segments. Eventually, CATS would extend the light rail another 10 miles to downtown Gastonia.

Randi Gates, a transportation planner for Gastonia, said such a plan could be a big help for the tens of thousands of residents who commute to Mecklenburg.

“We need mobility options,” she said. “We can only add so many lanes to existing highways, I-85 or US 74.”

Uptown

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CATS could build a tunnel (the light blue line) through uptown.

Uptown is the densest part of the city, and an east-west line needs a way through.

“We started with a spaghetti of lines,” said Lawrence. “Time is of the essence. We have to start advancing this line.”

CATS staff looked at several options, including a mile-long tunnel that would run mostly along Trade Street. But that plan came with high costs — some estimates put it at $1 billion, and the required depth and methods of tunneling aren’t known yet — and staff ultimately decided that was too risky.

“There were concerns about advancing a tunnel option,” said Lawrence.

Instead, staff recommended a route that would run mostly along uptown’s north and west. The Silver Line would cross from Independence Boulevard over to 11th Street, run parallel to I-277 to North Graham Street, then turn south to link to the planned Charlotte Gateway Station (where Amtrak trains would operate) and west to continue along Wilkinson Boulevard.

Lewis said that while planning efforts will advance, there are still questions to be answered before more trains are running in Charlotte.

“We need to have that conversation of how do we pay for that,” he said.

Ely Portillo covers local and state government for the Charlotte Observer, where he has previously written about growth, crime, the airport and a five-legged puppy. He grew up in Maryland and attended Harvard University.


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