Politics & Government

How would you like to get from uptown to Lake Norman: Rail or bus?

The Charlotte Area Transit System is exploring new locations to build the Red Line commuter train to Lake Norman. Norfolk Southern railroad has refused to share its freight rail tracks with CATS for a passenger train.
The Charlotte Area Transit System is exploring new locations to build the Red Line commuter train to Lake Norman. Norfolk Southern railroad has refused to share its freight rail tracks with CATS for a passenger train. AP

After nearly 20 years of planning, the Charlotte Area Transit System is back at it, brainstorming ways to build a rail line from uptown to Lake Norman.

With the old plan shelved because of Norfolk Southern’s refusal to share its freight rail tracks with CATS, planners are considering a number of possibilities.

Could a new rail line be built along Interstate 77? Could a new rail line be built parallel to the freight tracks? Is there an entirely new corridor?

“Everything is one the table,” said CATS chief executive John Lewis. “We are just beginning to explore that.”

CATS is holding a series of public meetings to educate north Mecklenburg residents about the project and to get their ideas for how to build the rail line. The transit system will also hold public meetings for the west corridor, a planned rail line from uptown to the airport and possibly beyond.

“We are trying to go back and educate people,” Lewis said. “At one of our first meetings we asked how many people had moved here in the last 10 years. More than half of the people had been in Cornelius less than 10 years. We have to go back and educate people.”

But some are skeptical whether anything will ever be built. Huntersville Mayor John Aneralla said he thinks CATS is wasting time and money, and the transit system should focus on expanding express bus service when I-77 toll lanes are built.

“Huntersville and Cornelius came out and said we don’t think we should be doing a study,” Aneralla said. “If there is anything of rail it should be on the (Norfolk Southern line). And any money that were dedicated to study this should just be dedicated to enhanced bus service.”

Aneralla added: “There is no place that’s viable to put another rail in North Mecklenburg.”

While CATS holds public meetings, a consultant, WSP, is also working on the two corridors. WSP has also been hired to determine how best the new rail lines would connect with each other uptown. In its proposal to CATS, WSP suggested a tunnel might be an effective way for the new rail line to get across uptown quickly and it could go under the existing Lynx Blue Line.

WSP, which was hired for $3.2 million, is supposed to be finished in December 2018.

CATS has already held three public meetings on the Red Line. There are three more scheduled, starting Nov. 9 in Mooresville.

The west corridor meetings start Nov. 2.

If built, the Red Line would begin uptown, at the proposed Gateway Station, which would house Amtrak, local bus service, Greyhound bus and a streetcar stop. The original plan was that the commuter rail line would use the existing freight rail tracks belonging to Norfolk Southern. But the railroad has refused to lease its tracks, despite years of lobbying from city officials and even former mayor and U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

Sharing the tracks was estimated to cost about $500 million. Building an entirely new rail bed would likely cost $1 billion or more.

Lewis said one possibility would be building a new rail bed adjacent to the freight tracks.

“Norfolk Southern has said they have no problem with us building a parallel track,” Lewis said.

But building an entirely new rail bed would add hundreds of millions of dollars to the project. There are also places along the line where there wouldn’t be room for a new rail bed. CATS would have to buy and bulldoze numerous homes and businesses.

“There are some areas where that would cause significant impact,” Lewis said.

A wildcard for the Red Line is the I-77 toll lanes that are under construction in north Mecklenburg. When the toll lanes are finished in 2019, CATS buses will be allowed to use the toll lanes for free, giving them a guaranteed travel speed of 45 mph.

For a fraction of the cost to operate and build a train, CATS could have a fleet of express buses carry commuters back and forth from uptown – with a similar or faster travel time to a train. The transit system plans to expand its express bus fleet to take advantage of the new toll lanes.

If the express buses are a success, does it make sense to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a new rail line?

“If you can guarantee people non-stop rides, I think you’ll get more and more people to take the bus,” Aneralla said.

CATS and the consultant WSP are also studying the west corridor, a proposed rail line from uptown to Charlotte Douglas Airport.

There are many questions about how the rail line would be built.

It could be streetcar or light rail. It could be built alongside Wilkinson Boulevard or West Boulevard. And CATS may in the future expand the line to the new River District development, which will be built west of the airport.

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs

The Charlotte Area Transit System is holding public meetings on the proposed Red Line to Lake Norman and the west corridor rail line to the airport.

Red Line meetings

Thursday, Nov. 9

Charles Mack Citizen Center

215 N. Main Street

Mooresville, NC 28115G

6-7:30 p.m.

Wednesday, Nov. 15

CharMeck Library (Uptown)

310 North Tryon Street, Charlotte NC

11:30 a.m. – 1:00 p.m.

Thursday, Nov. 16

Mecklenburg County Bar Association

2850 Zebulon Avenue, Charlotte NC

6-7:30 p.m.​

West Corridor meetings

Thursday, Nov. 2

Dorothy Waddy Building- Clanton Park

3132 Manchester Road, Charlotte NC

6:00 - 7:30 p.m.

Tuesday, Nov. 14

Goodwill Opportunity Campus

5301 Wilkinson Boulevard, Charlotte NC

6:00 - 7:30 p.m.

Wednesday, Nov. 15

CharMeck Library

310 North Tryon Street, Charlotte NC

11:30a.m. – 1:00 p.m.

Thursday, Nov. 16

Mecklenburg County Bar Association

2850 Zebulon Avenue, Charlotte NC

6:00 -7:30 p.m.

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