Politics & Government

New plan would add rail to airport, Lake Norman, Matthews – at once

Charlotte transit officials are considering an ambitious plan to extend light rail to the airport, Matthews and Iredell County – and virtually all at once.

That plan, which could cost as much as $6 billion, includes a new light rail corridor through northern towns, abandoning a long-planned “Red Line” commuter rail along existing tracks.

“Because we’re behind, because of the impact of the recession … we’ve got to find a way to jump start it,” said John Lewis, chief executive officer of the Charlotte Area Transit System.

Big questions remain including: How to pay for it and whether it would have taxpayer support, particularly in north Mecklenburg. Lewis, CATS chief since 2015, plans to present details of the plan – which some call “the Big Bang” – to his board this spring.

The city’s rail program started in 1998 when voters approved a half-cent sales tax for transit. That helped pay for the Blue Line from uptown to Interstate 485, which opened in 2007 at a cost of $463 million. A 9-mile extension to UNC Charlotte is expected to open in August. It cost $1.2 billion.

Though plans called for an express bus service along Independence Boulevard, Lewis has pushed for light rail from uptown to Matthews. CATS also planned to link the airport and uptown with an express bus service, though rail was an option.

In north Mecklenburg, residents have been paying the transit tax for two decades with little to show for it. The most recent sticking point for Red Line proponents: Getting access to freight tracks owned by Norfolk Southern. Lewis is trying to breathe life into the long-stalled project by acquiring a new right-of-way.

“If it were possible to use Norfolk Southern (tracks) we would have had more progress by now,” said Vi Lyles, chair of the City Council’s Transportation and Planning Committee.

She likes the idea of expanding the system. “At some point you have to finish out a system,” she said. “We can’t just do the Blue Line without having connectivity to the (Independence Boulevard) line and something to the airport.”

Hard sell

But it could be a hard sell, particularly in north Mecklenburg.

“The Red Line was supposed to be the next logical line, and now we’re 20 years down the road,” said Huntersville Mayor John Aneralla. “To invest money, to look into an alternative when we have the lake, we have I-77 and we have a rail line right through our downtowns, I don’t think it’s really prudent to look at an alternative.”

Lewis said a ballpark estimate is $2 billion for each transit corridor.

When the half-cent transit tax was enacted in 1998, the city said it could build multiple train lines with that revenue. In 2007, when voters rejected a tax repeal effort, CATS said the existing tax could still build rail to Lake Norman, a streetcar, rapid transit on Independence Boulevard and the Blue Line extension to UNCC.

State and federal money have helped pay for the Blue Line. Federal grants and city taxes are paying for a Gold Line, a planned 10-mile streetcar from Beatties Ford Road to the site of the old Eastland Mall.

Lewis said President Donald Trump’s proposed trillion-dollar infrastructure investment could help pay for a new transit plan. There’s also the possibility of special tax assessment districts and public-private partnerships.

New corridors

Lewis has pushed the transit system to study whether light-rail or a streetcar should serve the airport. He has said CATS might build the train on Wilkinson Boulevard or West Boulevard, which had never been previously considered for rapid transit.

Under Lewis, CATS has also proposed having transit lines built in places that were never before considered for trains.

One idea is to have the Independence Boulevard light rail line operate on Stonewall Street. Another option: Have the same rail line enter uptown along the Interstate 277 Brookshire Freeway before turning south to the Gateway Station, a combined bus, Amtrak, streetcar and light-rail station planned for uptown near BB&T Stadium.

State Sen. Jeff Tarte, a Cornelius Republican, likes the “Big Bang” approach.

“I love it,” he said. “(It’s) a marvelous idea.”

Jim Morrill: 704-358-5059, @jimmorrill

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs