Politics & Government

Charlotte unveils new transit options, including a billion-dollar tunnel through uptown

Here's what the light rail in Charlotte will look like in 2030

CATS CEO John M. Lewis is looking ahead to the next three lines in the system's light rail lines. Lewis is wanting to build the next three lines at the same time, in hopes of keeping the schedule of 5 light rail lines by the year 2030.
Up Next
CATS CEO John M. Lewis is looking ahead to the next three lines in the system's light rail lines. Lewis is wanting to build the next three lines at the same time, in hopes of keeping the schedule of 5 light rail lines by the year 2030.

Charlotte’s ambitious plans for more transit are coming into focus.

The Charlotte Area Transit System on Tuesday unveiled detailed options for light rail to the airport, rail or bus to Lake Norman, and a possible tunnel through uptown.

CATS chief executive John Lewis wants to spend up to $7 billion finishing the 2030 transit plan, which calls for rail lines to all corners of Mecklenburg County. CATS wants the public to help pick final routes for the transit lines, which could be built starting early in the next decade if CATS can find a way to pay for them.

CATS hired a consultant, WSP, to present options for the proposed transit lines. Here are the ideas:

Transit to the airport

WSP has recommended against building light rail along West Boulevard, one of the options considered. Instead, the firm proposes rail along Wilkinson Boulevard, with two slightly different routes. Both lines would have a Charlotte Douglas airport station on Wilkinson Boulevard that would connect to a people mover train that the airport has proposed building.

The first route would run along Wilkinson Boulevard from Belmont to uptown.

The second route would also begin in Belmont. It would run along Wilkinson Boulevard toward uptown, but then veer to the north and travel along Alleghany Street, Freedom Drive and Tuckaseegee Road.

CATS said the Wilkinson route would be a couple of minutes faster.

The Charlotte Area Transit System has proposed two routes for a rail line from uptown to Belmont.

Center city tunnel?

The west corridor would connect with the Silver Line that has been proposed for Independence Boulevard.

But CATS is trying to determine how the two lines would connect and pass through uptown.

The most expensive proposal is for a tunnel through uptown. It would run under the planned Gateway Station in Third Ward, and then turn to the east and pass under either Fifth or Sixth streets. That would give CATS the most efficient and fastest service. But it would also be the most expensive, most likely costing at least $1 billion.

CATS could build a tunnel (the light blue line) through uptown.

There are three other options.

One would have the new rail line share the Lynx Blue Line tracks through the heart of uptown, and then branch off. Another would have the new rail line share the Gold Line streetcar tracks.

The problem with sharing the Blue Line or Gold Line tracks would be scheduling – and trying to create room for the two rail lines. The Blue Line already has trains operating at rush hour every 7.5 minutes. If another line shared its tracks, trains would be coming every 3 minutes, causing congestion in uptown.

“The gates would be coming down all the time,” Lewis said.

The fourth option would be for the east-west line to pass through uptown along Interstate 277 north of uptown.

The city and WSP considered bringing the east-west train through uptown on Stonewall Street but abandoned that idea.

Project manager Jason Lawrence said there is too much construction from commercial development to make a rail line there feasible.

Train or bus to Lake Norman?

For 20 years, CATS has wanted to build a commuter rail line on the Norfolk Southern freight rail tracks that run alongside N.C. 115. But the freight railroad has repeatedly said it won’t share the tracks with CATS.

John Lewis said the Norfolk Southern line remains the preferred route. But CATS and WSP have presented three other options.

One is a bus line on Interstate 77 that would use the express toll lanes currently under construction. Another would be to expand U.S. 21 for bus rapid transit.

The other option would be to build a light-rail line along U.S. 21.

Huntersville Mayor John Anarella has said that the train should be built on the Norfolk Southern tracks or not at all. He said it’s impractical to expand U.S. 21 or build rail alongside it.


John Lewis said having bus rapid transit would allow CATS to cater to commuters, but there would no opportunity for transit-oriented development.

“We can move a lot of people, and that’s it,” Lewis said.

CATS said it hopes to pick one option for each rail line by the end of 2018. It would then hire a second consultant to get more detail on how much the lines would cost to build.

John Lewis has said expanding the transit system could cost between $5 billion and $7 billion. That would almost certainly require a new tax, possibly an increase in the sales tax.

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs