Unable to move forward with a commuter rail line, the Charlotte Area Transit System is moving closer to starting the Red Line with buses, using the express toll lanes being built on Interstate 77.
CATS is still committed to building the rail line on Norfolk Southern’s freight line that runs along N.C. 115. But the Metropolitan Transit Commission Wednesday voted to spend $780,000 to study how express buses would work on the toll lanes.
If the express bus system works, it raises a question of whether it’s wise to spend more than $500 million on the rail line, which might have slower travel times than buses operating in express lanes.
Davidson Mayor John Woods, a proponent of building the commuter rail line, said buses could be a short-term solution. But he said it won’t take the place of a train.
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“It will take some time to put true rail transit in place,” she said. “But we haven't lost our priority for the project.”
The 25-mile commuter line would use the freight rail tracks, from a planned Gateway Station to Mount Mourne in Iredell County. The trains would be “heavy-rail” locomotives as opposed to the light-rail trains on the Blue Line.
There are two hurdles to the project:
▪ The first is that CATS doesn’t own the rail line. Norfolk Southern does, and so far the railroad has refused to share its tracks with CATS. The two sides have been negotiating for years and haven’t reached a solution.
▪ The second problem is money. As of now, the federal government won’t pay for the commuter rail line, and CATS doesn’t have nearly enough money to build it on its own. The line will cost at least $500 million.
“Without question, the very critical issues or money and rail cooperation are still very much present for us,” Woods said.
CATS would likely need a new dedicated transit sales tax.
Controversial toll lanes
CATS today operates three express bus routes from north Mecklenburg to uptown – 77x, 53x and 48x. Those routes make fewer stops than regular buses, and are designed for commuters.
The express buses today use I-77, but are often stuck in traffic.
The toll lanes under construction will allow buses and people in carpools with three or more people to use the lanes for free. Others can pay a variable toll to use the express lanes.
The minimum speed on the express lanes is supposed to be 45 mph. That means buses would go at least 45 mph to and from uptown – a faster average speed than the Lynx Blue Line.
I-77 Mobility Partners, a subsidiary of Spanish-based Cintra, recently started construction on the express toll lanes. State Rep. Charles Jeter, a Huntersville Republican, said he plans to introduce legislation next week that would cancel the toll lane project.
The toll lanes are extremely controversial in north Mecklenburg, but Jeter’s bill faces long odds.
The toll lanes are scheduled to open in late 2018.
During the debate over whether the toll lanes should move forward, Ned Curran of the N.C. Board of Transportation, said that the lanes could be a valuable tool for transit because the commuter line couldn’t move forward.
Questions about bus service
There are several questions about how express buses would work.
Would they make several stops – or would they start in Davidson or Cornelius and not stop again until they reach uptown?
Would CATS build stations with amenities like Wi-Fi and vending machines to entice commuters?
One advantage buses would have over the commuter rail line is that they could bring passengers to the main bus station on Trade Street, across from Time Warner Cable Arena in the heart of uptown. The commuter trains will stop at a planned Gateway Station, at Graham, 4th and Trade Streets.
Another advantage: Improving stations and increasing bus service would cost a fraction of the money needed to build and operate the commuter train.
Bill Coxe, a Huntersville planner, said the bus service could be a good intermediary step until the commuter train could be built.
But he said buses would never spark the same type of development that would occur if a train line were built. One of the goals of the Red Line is to create dense, walkable communities near stations.
“I don’t think development patters would respond as robustly as they would towards a train,” he said.
Kurt Naas is a leader of Widen I-77, a group opposed to the toll lanes. He said he doesn’t think the commuter train or toll lanes is enough to solve congestion issues in the fast-growing area.
“If we’re going to spend taxpayer dollars, the biggest bang for your buck is widening I-77,” he said. “Many, many more people would use the new lanes than the train.”
He added: “From a transit sense, having buses use the toll lanes makes a lot more sense than building a new train line.”