Politics & Government

Light rail to SouthPark and Ballantyne? Consultant pitches a second transit plan.

View from a drone: The new light rail line from uptown Charlotte to UNCC

Follow the light rail line from uptown Charlotte north to the campus and home of the Charlotte 49ers.
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Follow the light rail line from uptown Charlotte north to the campus and home of the Charlotte 49ers.

Charlotte’s transit service already has a bold plan for a $6 billion expanded transit system that would take residents to the airport, Lake Norman and Matthews.

Potential consultants for part of the project take that even further.

Their vision, revealed in bids to plan for the next phase of the project, include a possible $1 billion tunnel through uptown and service to SouthPark and Ballantyne.

Four engineering firms have submitted bids with the Charlotte Area Transit System to plan the next phase of rail lines to the airport and Lake Norman, along with how to integrate new rail lines in uptown. To cross the Blue Line with a new rail line, CATS would either have to build a bridge across it or tunnel under it.

One consultant, WSP/Parsons Brinckerhoff, suggested that a tunnel would be worth studying. WSP/Parks Brinckerhoff said it has worked on a rail tunnel in downtown Seattle and that Charlotte should conduct a “peer review” of how other cities have handled a jumble of rail lines meeting in a downtown.

Any tunnel through uptown Charlotte would likely cost $1 billion or so to go 1.5 miles.

In addition to a bridge or tunnel through uptown, one firm, Kimley-Horn, also suggested that it study future transit corridors that could be built after the initial $6 billion in new rail lines are built.

The consultant Kimley-Horn included this map of Charlotte’s transit system in 2070 as part of a proposal to study the next phase of rail lines to the airport and Lake Norman. Charlotte Area Transit System City of Charlotte

Kimley-Horn suggested CATS consider reserving right-of-way for extending the Blue Line to Ballantyne; building a new rail line to SouthPark; and extending a commuter rail line to east Charlotte. Those lines could be part of a 2070 plan, the consultant said.

“There are still areas of the city that are developing outside of the defined growth corridors,” Kinmley-Horn said in its presentation. “The SouthPark area is a prime example. SouthPark has seen rapid expansion and development as a retail, office and residential center. This could very well be a center that the city will want to connect to Center City with rail transit.”

CATS received the four proposals in March. The transit system hopes to select a firm this month, with planning and engineering work starting this summer. The selected firm would also hold public meetings to get input from residents.

The four firms are: WSP/Parsons Brinckerhoff, HNTB, Kimley-Horn and STV.

All have done work in Charlotte before.

CATS chief executive John Lewis has said building the new rail lines could cost between $5 billion and $7 billion. The transit system can’t afford that and would likely need a new tax to raise the money for the rail lines.

The consulting and planning contract could cost CATS about $3 million.

One part of the plan is for a new rail line along Independence Boulevard to Matthews. CATS has already selected a preferred route for that line, known as the Silver Line. That is not part of this study.

The consultant will study:

▪ How to extend the Silver Line through uptown to Charlotte Douglas International Airport. The Silver Line could reach the airport along Wilkinson Boulevard or West Boulevard, and it would also extend to the planned River District, a massive development west of Interstate 485 that’s being planned by Lincoln Harris.

In addition to determining the alignment to reach the airport, the consultant must also determine how the rail line crosses uptown. Would it use a tunnel? Would it use a bridge?

HNTB’s proposal included a number of options for connecting the various lines.

One option was to have the Silver Line and west corridor merge onto the Lynx Blue Line tracks briefly, which means CATS wouldn’t need a bridge or tunnel.

▪ How to build the Red Line train to Lake Norman. CATS had planned for that rail line to be a commuter train that would share freight tracks owned by Norfolk-Southern. But the railroad has refused to give CATS access to those tracks, causing CATS to look for other routes.

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs