Politics & Government

CATS wants a rail line to airport. A $1.5 million study will determine the best way.

The Charlotte Area Transit System plans to spend up to $1.5 million on a west corridor transit study. A rail line could be built on Wilkinson Boulevard.
The Charlotte Area Transit System plans to spend up to $1.5 million on a west corridor transit study. A rail line could be built on Wilkinson Boulevard. sharrison@charlotteobserver.com

The Charlotte Area Transit System is continuing its ambitious plans for more rail lines, and expects to spend up to $1.5 million on a consultant to determine how and where it should build a line to serve west Charlotte and the airport.

Ten years ago, in the 2030 transit plan, CATS had a general concept of building a streetcar along Wilkinson Boulevard toward Charlotte Douglas International Airport.

But CATS chief executive John Lewis wants a more detailed study to determine whether that’s the best option. He also wants to know how much it would cost.

“This is not just a study to put on the shelf,” Lewis said. “My ultimate goal is I want to build these lines.”

Among the questions the study will attempt to answer:

▪ Should the west corridor line be a streetcar or traditional light rail? Streetcars stop for red lights, while light rail usually has its own right-of-way and a consistent travel time.

▪ Should it be built on Wilkinson Boulevard or farther south on West Boulevard?

▪ How should it access the airport?

▪ How would it best serve the massive new River District development west of Interstate 485 and the airport that’s being planned by Crescent Communities and Lincoln Harris?

Lewis and CATS are building a transit wish list of at least three new rail lines, whose total cost will likely exceed $2 billion. Besides the west corridor, other plans include the Red Line commuter rail line to Lake Norman and light-rail train called the Silver Line along Independence Boulevard.

CATS and the Metropolitan Transit Commission haven’t hired a consultant yet for the west corridor. Once plans for the three lines are finished – probably in 2018 – Lewis plans to find a way to pay for the trains. That would likely depend on federal and state money, and probably an increase in the sales tax as well. The city could also raise property taxes.

The three lines don’t include the city of Charlotte’s plan to extend the streetcar. The city is paying for the streetcar, or Gold Line, on its own.

A new wild card is how the Trump administration will fund transit. Trump has said he wants to spend $1 trillion over 10 years on new infrastructure, though he hasn’t made any specific statements about whether transit would be a part of that. Some are optimistic that Trump – a New Yorker familiar with the city’s subway – will be more supportive of transit than the Republican Congress.

The president-elect’s plan calls for giving private developers tax credits for building infrastructure. Though some highways are built that way, almost all transit projects are funded and built by state and local governments.

Federal help is critical for any project to move forward. The Federal Transit Administration paid for half of the construction costs of both of the Lynx Blue Line and the extension to UNC Charlotte that’s scheduled to open next year – roughly $730 million.

West Boulevard or Wilkinson Boulevard?

CATS has planned to use Wilkinson Boulevard for the west corridor.

One advantage is that route would bring a streetcar or light-rail line close to the passenger terminal at Charlotte Douglas. The plan would include a rail stop near the entrance to the airport, and passengers would then board a second train – a people-mover – to bring them to the terminal.

But Lewis said West Boulevard should also be considered. One reason: West Boulevard is closer to the planned River District, which could be a source of riders for the rail line. Early plans for the development include 4,000 apartments and single-family homes, 500,000 square-feet of retail space, and 8 million square-feet of office space.

Lewis said a station south of the airport could still be viable. But passengers would have to get off the station and take a longer bus ride or people-mover trip to the terminal, which is on the north side of the airport.

That could make an airport trip less attractive.

Streetcar or light-rail?

If CATS decides to build light rail in the west corridor, the train would likely be in its own right-of-way, like the Lynx Blue Line. That means the trip would be faster because the train wouldn’t stop at red lights.

But using streetcars would be less expensive. It would also make it easier for the rail line to enter uptown because the cars could run on city streets.

But residents throughout the city have often said they prefer light rail. That was the consensus when CATS was planning the Silver Line along Independence Boulevard.

“I would say you need some kind of dedicated right of way, or a right of way that is not stuck in traffic,” said Brian Leary, a president of commercial and mixed-use properties for Crescent, which is developing the River District. “If not, you lose the value proposition for transit for many people. The best sell for transit is when you are passing people stuck in cars.”

One potential hurdle is whether light rail or a streetcar would qualify for federal funds on the roughly 6 mile trip to the airport.

A decade ago, former CATS chief executive Ron Tober said the transit system didn’t build light rail along Wilkinson Boulevard because there weren’t enough people living in the corridor. To receive federal money, a transit project must score high enough on a complicated formula. Tober didn’t think light rail would qualify.

The River District development could bring enough people to the area to make the project viable.

Lewis said the consultant will also determine how much the line would cost. Using the city’s other rail lines as measuring sticks, the trip from uptown to the airport could cost $300 million if CATS built a streetcar. If CATS built light rail, it would likely cost twice as much.

If CATS builds a streetcar, the trip to the airport could actually take longer than today’s Sprinter bus, a a direct route from uptown to the terminal. With a streetcar, passengers would likely have to board a people-mover to reach the terminal.

Where should the line enter uptown?

The west corridor could end at the proposed Gateway Station, a new transit hub planned for Trade Street, near BB&T Ballpark.

Or CATS could bring the line closer to uptown, possibly on the Gold Line streetcar tracks on Trade Street. CATS could also choose another route to enter uptown, such as Morehead Street.

Another question is whether CATS should allow for the west corridor to cross the Catawba River and enter Gaston County. That would likely happen years after the train line opens. It would also probably need a financial commitment from Gaston County to build a new bridge for the train.

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs