How is CATS going to fund the next $8 billion light rail expansion?
Almost two decades ago, when the Charlotte Area Transit System was planning the first leg of the Blue Line light rail, Pineville said “no thanks.”
Too many people and too much dense development. Too much traffic. Too much of a threat to the older neighborhoods around Pineville’s downtown. All were reasons former Pineville officials cited in turning down CATS’ plan to cross Interstate 485 and build light rail through Pineville.
“They would want about 5,000 people living within a half-mile of a station,” former Pineville Mayor George Fowler said in 2002, explaining the decision. “We’re only a town of 3,500, and that would have made such a big impact on the town.”
But the growth came anyway. In the ensuing years, Pineville’s population — along with Ballantyne and the rest of south Charlotte and the nearby South Carolina upstate — has exploded. The town has more than 8,700 residents now — or 5,200 more, almost the exact number Fowler said he feared light rail would bring.
With the exploding population has come more traffic, especially along dense, commuter-heavy routes like Pineville-Matthews Road, U.S. 521 and the southern stretch of I-485. And now, Pineville wants the light rail it turned down years ago.
“We missed the train 10 years ago,” said Pineville Mayor Jack Edwards. The Blue Line ends just north of I-485, almost two miles north of Main and Polk streets in Pineville. “Let’s not miss it again.”
Edwards said that increased traffic has become a “hot-button issue” that only intensifies from year to year.
“This section of Mecklenburg County, with Ballantyne, has grown exponentially,” he said. Another 700 to 800 homes are currently under development in Pineville, he said.
The town council unanimously passed a resolution of support for light rail in Pineville late last year. CATS’ governing board, the Metropolitan Transit Commission, formally adopted the idea of studying a Pineville-Ballantyne light rail extension as part of the updated 2030 plan last month.
CATS chief executive John Lewis said this week the transit agency plans to identify by the end of June the exact corridor through which the Blue Line extension to Ballantyne could run. CATS plans to hold public outreach sessions to talk about possible routes and get feedback from people over the coming months, Lewis said, speaking at a transportation summit hosted by South Charlotte Partners.
Ned Curran, longtime leader of Ballantyne developer Bissell, has been lobbying for an extended light rail for months. Now CEO emeritus of Northwood Office, Ballantyne Corporate Park’s owner, Curran said light rail to Ballantyne makes too much sense not to do.
“You’re seeing Ballantyne emerge as a city within a city,” he said. Between Ballantyne and other nearby developments, there are more than 6 million square feet of office space on what were mostly just fields 20 years ago, and tens of thousands of workers commute to and from the area every day.
“It benefits all of us to say we need to be thoughtful about not just using single-occupancy cars,” said Curran. “It just makes sense.”
Since the first leg of the Blue Line opened through South End in 2007, development has boomed, with thousands of new apartments, office buildings and repurposed warehouses and mills turning into breweries. Last year, CATS opened the Blue Line extension from uptown to UNC Charlotte, igniting a similar building boom along the northern line. CATS estimates developers have built or are building about $3.5 billion worth of new projects along the total route.
But while the earlier opposition from Pineville has faded, building light rail through the town won’t be quick or straightforward. Besides the years of planning and right-of-way acquisition that transit lines require, the biggest stumbling block will be money.
“It is going to be challenging,” said Curran. “We’ve got to find the money.”
CATS is planning to build about 20 miles of light rail from Matthews to uptown and west to the airport and, eventually, Belmont. Known as the Silver Line, back-of-the-envelope calculations have placed the potential cost as high as $8 billion for that project. The federal government — which picked up half the cost of the Blue Line — has been less enthusiastic about funding transit projects under the Trump administration. And the state has capped its contribution to all new transit lines at 10 percent of the total cost, down from the 25 percent it gave to the Blue Line.
It’s about five miles from the current end of the Blue Line to Ballantyne, and with a per-mile cost of $125 million (how much the Blue Line Extension cost in today’s dollars), that would cost roughly $625 million to build today. But Lewis has said estimates are likely to double, at least, for future light rail lines, which would put the cost north of $1.2 billion.
Edwards acknowledged money will be the big challenge, but said planning should still start as soon as possible to take advantage of future opportunities.
“There’s no money available right now,” he said. “We have to get things in motion now, because our area is growing more.”
CATS is exploring alternative ways of funding the next phase of its expansion. That could include diverting a portion of the property taxes collected from light rail-adjacent developments (a strategy known as value capture) to CATS, and increasing the half-cent local sales tax that currently funds transit. The latter would require approval from the state legislature.
Asked if he’s confident the Blue Line can be extended through Pineville to Ballantyne in the next decade or so, Curran paused for a beat.
“I’m hopeful,” he finally said.
Carolina Place Mall
One of the major drivers of the plan to bring light rail through Pineville: Routing it through Carolina Place Mall. The Sears store at Carolina Place closed this year, and other large anchors like JC Penney are on shaky ground. Macy’s closed in 2017, though Dick’s Sporting Goods moved into the space. Other mall staples like Payless and Gymboree have also closed at Carolina Place.
Edwards said “concern we have for the mall” is one of the main drivers for the light rail plan.
“The whole concept is taking it from 485 through the mall,” he said. “We want to save the mall by allowing people to go through the mall or connect with it.”
Transit through the mall could make its acres and acres of asphalt parking lots more attractive for redevelopment. At SouthPark, a new, upscale apartment building with retail on the ground floor is being built adjacent to the mall’s parking lot — an example of the denser development many see as essential to the future of enclosed shopping malls.
In the meantime, transit officials are rearranging bus service to relieve congestion. Edwards said re-timing bus routes to more consistently match the Blue Line schedule at the I-485 stop will help commuters and encourage more to use the train.
“They have to get the bus routes to the point where they meet up with the train and not miss it by three minutes,” he said.
And when toll lanes open on the southern portion of I-485 in 2022, CATS will be able to use them to run express buses from Ballantyne, through Pineville and to the light rail’s southern terminus.
Even if it’s a decade or more before light rail comes to Pineville, Edwards said planning is needed immediately.
“If it’s 10 years, or 15 years, or 20,” he said, “You’ve got to get something going now.”