Politics & Government

Will Charlotte’s new $3.2 million transit consultant propose an uptown subway?

CATS BlueLine begins testing on North Tryon Street

The Charlotte Are Transit System invited the media out to North Tryon Street to watch as the LYNX Blue Line Extension trains were tested on N. Tryon Street for the first time.
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The Charlotte Are Transit System invited the media out to North Tryon Street to watch as the LYNX Blue Line Extension trains were tested on N. Tryon Street for the first time.

Charlotte will pay a transit consultant $3.2 million to decide where and how the city should build rail to Lake Norman and to the airport, plus how all the transit lines should tie together uptown.

City Council on Monday voted to hire WSP USA – formerly known as WSP/Parsons Brinckerhoff – to map the next phase of the city’s transit expansion, which has been estimated to cost between $5 billion and $7 billion.

In some ways, the contract with WSP is a back-to-the-future moment for CATS.

In its proposal, one of the firm’s key figures is Ron Tober, who led CATS from 1999 to 2007 and was in charge when the first light-rail line was being built. Tober, who lives in Charlotte, is a strategic adviser for WSP.

Another key player for WSP is David Carol, a former CATS planner who spent years working on the north corridor Red Line that hasn’t been built.

The decision to hire WSP rankled Charlotte urban planner and consultant Michael Gallis, who helped design the city’s original transit plan. Gallis is affiliated with HNTB, one of the firms that wasn’t selected.

Gallis said the city should have focused on building light rail in multiple corridors, as envisioned in the 1990s, instead of what he calls today’s “screwball” transit system. He said it doesn’t make sense to have a streetcar instead of light rail, and that Charlotte needs a central terminal uptown to connect all the lines.

The current plan calls for some rail lines to meet at the Gateway Station near BB&T Ballpark, with the streetcar connecting those passengers to the Lynx Blue Line near the Spectrum Center.

“We ended up with a bunch of disconnected lines,” he said.

Gallis said he is puzzled that CATS only interviewed two of four firms who applied for the consulting contract. HNTB, Kimley-Horn and STV Engineers also applied for the contract; CATS only interviewed WSP and STV.

“That’s surprising. With four firms, that’s only two more hours of interviews,” he said.

“You do that get different perspectives,” he said. “Even if you don’t pick them, you want to gain a little knowledge.”

When asked why CATS only interviewed two of the four firms, the transit system said it didn’t make that decision on its own.

“A nine-member selection team made up of staff from CATS, CDOT, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Department, the Airport, and the towns of Huntersville, Cornelius and Davidson felt those two proposals best met the criteria,” CATS said.

The WSP study is expected to take 18 months.

One part of the contract calls for WSP to work on “center city integration,” which means tying all the rail lines together in uptown.

The main challenge is how the proposed Silver Line along Independence Boulevard would enter uptown and then exit uptown on the the way to the airport. In addition to navigating uptown’s increasingly crowded streets, that rail line must also cross the Lynx Blue Line.

In its proposal to CATS, WSP said one possibility is a tunnel, or subway.

“Numerous other cities have and are exploring how to connect multiple transit lines in their downtowns,” the proposal said. “Salt Lake City has an extensive network of in-street rail connections, but they have the benefit of wide streets with generous rights-of-way. Seattle constructed a downtown transit tunnel to accommodate both buses and light rail and is now planning a second tunnel for light rail.”

The proposal doesn’t discuss how much a mile or two-mile subway through uptown might cost. It would probably cost at least $1 billion.

WSP has also been tasked with:

▪ Deciding where new transit lines should be built. CATS has wanted to use Norfolk Southern’s freight line for a commuter rail line to Lake Norman, but the railroad has repeatedly said it won’t share its tracks.

CATS has now decided to look for a new place to build a rail line to the Lake Norman towns.

Another question is how CATS will bring light rail to the west side of Charlotte. Will the rail line run along Wilkinson Boulevard, which has long been the most common assumption? Or will it go south and run along West Boulevard?

▪ Deciding which type of train should be used – or whether buses would make the most sense.

CATS has said it wants to build rail transit in all three corridors, but WSP will review whether that’s the best option.

One possibility would be to use the express toll lane on Interstate 77 that’s under construction for a bus rapid-transit line. CATS is planning to expand commuter bus service to north Mecklenburg once the toll lane opens. Would it make sense to continue that service and not build a train?

▪ Creating a preliminary cost estimate. The $5-$7 billion estimate has been cited by CATS chief executive John Lewis as the likely cost for the expansion, but that’s only a guess.

CATS doesn’t have money to build another new train line. So any expansion would likely need a new tax, which would have to be approved by voters.

In the past, cost estimates for rail lines have been too low. The Lynx Blue Line, for instance, was supposed to cost $225 million when it was planned in the late 1990s. When it opened in 2007, the cost had risen to $462 million.

WSP has done extensive work in Charlotte recently. It helped design the route for the Silver Line, a proposed rail corridor along Independence Boulevard and Monroe Road. It’s also working for the N.C. Department of Transportation on a study to improve the Interstate 277 loop around uptown.

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs