Opening of Gold Line streetcar project faces 6-month delay, CATS says

The Gold Line streetcar through uptown Charlotte will be delayed until early 2021, partially because of the Republican National Convention, the city’s transit chief said Monday, and the existing line will shut down for much of the second half of 2019.

The Charlotte Area Transit System is seeking a delay from the federal government of up to six months for the streetcar’s opening, John Lewis, chief executive of CATS, told the Charlotte City Council Monday.

The city had planned to open the 2.5-mile streetcar extension in August 2020.

Lewis cited the 2020 Republican National Convention for the delay. The convention is Aug. 24-27, 2020, at the Spectrum Center, with a tight security envelope covering most of uptown. The Department of Homeland Security has told CATS that all work on the streetcar will need to stop for up to 90 days before the RNC. That will impact necessary tests on the streetcar line before it can open to passengers, Lewis said.

“There will be a cessation of construction,” Lewis said. “We have a series of testing that must be done. It is the testing period that would be interrupted. ... Our testing would be delayed until after the RNC.”

The testing will then take at least four months, Lewis said.

Lewis said this is the first time construction on a federally funded transit project has been impacted by convention security.

But City Manager Marcus Jones said the blame isn’t all on the RNC. He acknowledged there have been other problems, such as the steel girders for a bridge over Hawthorne Street that turned out to be the wrong size.

“Even before the RNC, we’ve had some challenges with Gold Line,” said Jones. “Hawthorne Bridge, you name it. There have been concerns.”

The city of Charlotte and the federal government are evenly splitting the $150 million cost for the extension. When completed, it will extend the streetcar east to Sunnyside Avenue and west to Johnson C. Smith University.

Lewis also told the City Council that the existing 1.5-mile streetcar line will soon shut down for up to eight months, starting this summer. CATS needs to raise the levels of the current platforms by 6 to 8 inches to accommodate modern streetcar vehicles that are set to replace the antique trolleys currently running on the line.

CATS will provide bus service to bridge the gap in streetcar service, Lewis said.

Transit costs

Hanging over the streetcar’s future — and CATS’ 2030 Plan to extend light rail lines to Ballantyne, Matthews, the airport and Belmont — is the question of how to pay for it. The Matthews airport plan and express bus service to Mooresville would cost up to $8 billion, Lewis has said, but that is an estimate.

“That would only be a guess at this point,” Lewis said. “We will not be able to put a price tag on that until we get into some engineering.”

Council member Justin Harlow said the group needs more specifics on how much future phases of transit expansion will cost.

“We still don’t have a dollar amount attached to it,” Harlow said.

The Blue Line has been funded in part with Mecklenburg County’s half-cent sales tax, along with the state paying for 25 percent and the federal government paying for 50 percent. Building the new rail lines would require more local tax money, Lewis said. An additional half-cent sales tax (which would require approval from the legislature) would provide capacity for another $2.5 billion to $3 billion worth of transit funding.

But the Gold Line streetcar is funded instead by the city’s general fund, with local property taxes.

Council member Ed Driggs asked if the third phase of the streetcar — which is supposed to run from Interstate 85 to the former Eastland Mall site — could cost $300 million to $400 million.

“That would be in the realm, yes,” Lewis said.

“The city has to pay for it, is that right?” Driggs said.

“I think that’s a discussion the city will have to have,” said Lewis.

Driggs said he wanted more specificity about future funding, and not a “rabbit that comes out of the hat.”

Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles said the city will have to look at regional funding sources, such as taxes from other counties like Cabarrus, Union and Gaston, that future lines could connect to.

“Our options are not wide,” Lyles said. “We can’t do it in Mecklenburg by ourselves.”

Council member Matt Newton said city officials need more details on CATS’ plans, and soon.

“The sooner that we can have some clarity on how to move forward, the better,” Newton said.

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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.