Commuter rail to York County? It could happen, CATS chief says

The Carolina Panthers’ pending move of its team headquarters and practice facility to Rock Hill, S.C., heightens speculation that a rail line could one day connect York County to Charlotte.

It could happen, the Charlotte Area Transit System’s chief executive said this week. CEO John Lewis says the Charlotte region is growing so rapidly that it makes sense to look at ways to connect the city’s urban rail network to surrounding counties.

“This is the same discussion that is going on in other cities — Washington, Dallas, Denver — about multi-modal solutions of light rail, commuter rail or other alternatives,” he said. “This is the natural outcome of the success of the Blue Line (light rail) and its extensions, and of efforts to build out the 2030 Plan” for transit in Mecklenburg County.

An 18-month study of transit options for the 12-county Charlotte region, including the urban areas of York and Lancaster counties in South Carolina, is expected to start by the end of the year. It will be overseen by the Metropolitan Policy Commission, which is CATS’ policy board, and the Centralina Council of Governments.

Local governments in Cabarrus, Gaston and Union counties have all expressed support for extending light rail from the CATS system, the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute reported in June.

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In York County on Friday, board members of the local agency in charge of regional transportation planning, called the Rock Hill-Fort Mill Area Transportation Study or RFATS, will also discuss updating a 2007 study of transit options.

That study had recommended a bus-based fast transit system, possibly to be later converted to rail, along U.S. 21 between Rock Hill and Charlotte. The study served as a first step toward seeking future transit grants from the federal government, but work on the $500 million bus route was never begun.

Low population density along the U.S. 21 corridor was not ideal for transit at the time, the study noted. But that’s changing.

“The cost to serve per passenger was considerable, and that’s not something federal agencies can ignore,” said RFATS administrator David Hooper. “You still have low density along portions of the corridor, but there have been numerous developments off the corridor that have changed demand on U.S. 21 and I-77.”

Among them are Kingsley’s mix of hotels, restaurants, office space and apartments in Fort Mill, and the Riverwalk planned community in Rock Hill. Other sites, including the former Charlotte Knights baseball stadium off I-77 just south of the N.C. line, appear ripe for redevelopment.

‘Just need a corridor and rails’

The Panthers are reported to have under contract a site off I-77 in Rock Hill. South Carolina offered a $115 million tax incentive package for the team to move from Charlotte. At a pep rally in Rock Hill in June celebrating the move, S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster was among officials who said the team’s presence could help spur construction of a rail line to Rock Hill from Charlotte, The Rock Hill Herald reported. The Panthers didn’t respond to a request for comment.

For now, CATS offers express buses from Charlotte to downtown Rock Hill and bus routes that connect to CATS’ light rail station near Interstate 485 in southern Mecklenburg County.

With 35,000 South Carolina commuters pouring into Charlotte every day, a potential rail corridor to York County could emerge from the upcoming regional transit study, Lewis said. But it wouldn’t be the sort of rail that powers CATS’ Blue Line.

The Blue Line is light rail, designed to make frequent stops along densely-developed corridors. Lines serving more lightly populated suburban areas like York County are called commuter rail, with trains running longer distances on schedules geared to the workday.

CATS’ long-proposed Red Line, which would run from Charlotte to southern Iredell County, is an example of commuter rail.

Commuter rail is cheaper to build because those trains would not run on electricity. Blue Line trains, in contrast, are powered by overhead lines.

“With commuter rail, you really just need a corridor and rails, like Amtrak,” Lewis said.

Still, he said, costs will be the biggest hurdle to extending rail lines. CATS’ current construction plans, which don’t include a York County rail extension, are already estimated to cost up to $8 billion.

A commuter line running from Rock Hill through Fort Mill could end at CATS’ Gateway Station, now under construction in uptown Charlotte, Lewis said. That would let passengers connect to the Blue Line light rail or the future Silver Line that will run from Matthews to Belmont in Gaston County.

Extending rail from North Carolina into South Carolina would also face legal obstacles that would likely need legislative approval in both states, Lewis said. The Metropolitan Transit Commission is structured to allow new members from outlying N.C. counties, but not those from South Carolina.

“We’re at the beginning of a process that’s going to take some time to work through,” Lewis said.