CATS envisions a Monroe Road streetcar in addition to streetcar line uptown

Officials hope traffic congestion on Independence Boulevard might be eased by a streetcar along Monroe Road.
Officials hope traffic congestion on Independence Boulevard might be eased by a streetcar along Monroe Road. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Next week, the initial leg of Charlotte’s much-debated streetcar line will open, running between uptown and Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center.

But that’s not the only streetcar project for which Charlotte Area Transit System is trying to build support. CATS on June 22 offered commissioners for the town of Matthews a briefing on a potential streetcar that could run out Monroe Road to the town as part of a broader long-range transit plan for southeast Charlotte.

The concept dates back at least to 2011, when consultants for the Urban Land Institute proposed scrapping east side residents’ long-sought goal of putting light rail on Independence Boulevard. The consultants suggested that Independence is too far from neighborhoods and too choked with cars to spur the kind of dense, close-in development patterns light rail systems thrive in.

Instead, they suggested installing a streetcar line along Monroe Road and using express bus service in high-occupancy toll lanes on Independence.

Work on the toll lane project is moving ahead, with construction slated to start in 2017. Meanwhile, the Monroe Road streetcar idea remains just that – an idea. CATS is pushing ahead on the preliminary legwork of building public awareness and support.

CATS has scheduled three public workshops on Monroe Road/Independence Boulevard transit options for early August. One will be at 6 p.m. Aug. 4 at Matthews Town Hall.

With CATS staring at a shortfall of up to $5 billion in funding for this and other projects in its 2030 plan, it seems unlikely that a Monroe Road streetcar plan would get the green light anytime soon. In fact, the slides for CATS’ presentation to the Matthews commissioners took pains to point out that there is no “shovel ready” rail project identified.

(In fact, while the slides speak of the managed lanes concept for Independence, they don’t actually specify Monroe Road as the location for a streetcar. They don’t even use the word “streetcar” – they say “rail project”).

CATS is wise to proceed with caution here, given the years of political brawling that have led up to this month’s launch of the eastside-westside streetcar.

The streetcar-to-Matthews concept raises a host of new and interesting questions.

Will it be criticized in the southeastern suburbs as a political boondoggle, like the east-west one has been? Or will it soothe anti-streetcar sentiment in that part of the county and help CATS build the suburban support it needs to plug that $5 billion hole in its 2030 plan?

It seems safe to say a lot of what happens with the Monroe Road streetcar concept will depend on how the east-west streetcar fares when its first phase rolls out on Tuesday.

One thing’s for certain: A lot more than just passengers will be riding on it.

Eric Frazier