Nov 17, 2019 - News

Charlotte took a big step toward its next light rail project. But even supporters say there are major kinks to work out

Blue Line light rail stop North End

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Imagine one day being able to jump on the light rail in the town of Belmont. From there, you could ride it straight into Uptown, or you could connect to the Blue Line light rail a few stops away in North End. Or you could take it all the way home to Matthews — all while avoiding Charlotte’s increasing traffic.

Twenty months after the Blue Line light rail extension opened from Uptown to University, city and transit partners last week officially invested public money in the area’s next major light rail project: The Silver Line, the east-west light rail that will run from Gaston County all the way down to the southeastern most tip of the county.

Charlotte City Council voted 8-2 on Tuesday to approve a plan to spend $50 million to design the 25-mile rail line.

Council approved the study without knowing what the final cost of the project will be, or how exactly it would be funded. That uncertainty drew the opposition from the two Republicans who voted against it.

“We can’t go north and south and ignore the east and west,” Mayor Vi Lyles said last week. “Let’s not forget we already did this for half the city.”

Towns like Gastonia and Matthews praise the recent progress on the Silver Line and say it’s a way to connect them to the rest of Mecklenburg County. City boosters see an additional rail line as a way to spur economic development to the East and West.

The approved Silver Line route map.

The goal is to wrap up the project in 2030. But even supporters note major challenges to work through before construction begins.

The study portion alone will take two to three years, City Manager Marcus Jones told city council last Tuesday. That’s better than the original estimate of five to seven years.

Last spring, Charlotte Area Transit System agreed on a route. The line will run from Matthews up Independence Boulevard toward Uptown, connect to the Blue Line at North End, and head west along Wilkinson Boulevard to the airport. From there, it goes out to Belmont in Gaston County.

The city is also considering extending the Silver Line to Stallings, out in Union County.

Nearby towns have been pushing for this project for a while. Officials from Matthews, Belmont, and Gastonia attended last week’s meeting.

“We have a lot of residents from Gaston County that work at your airport, that work Uptown, so another transportation alternative would be much appreciated and we think a great regional connection,” Belmont City Manager Adrian Miller said during a recent planning meeting, the Gaston Gazette wrote.

But the route itself isn’t perfect, some say.

It won’t have a stop at Charlotte’s airport, but about a mile away from it. In other words, you’ll have to take a shuttle or bus or some other kind of people-mover to get to the airport from the light-rail stop.

That’s how the rail is at airports such as LaGuardia in New York. But at others like O’Hare and Midway in Chicago, you can catch the train from a stop at the airport.

The local nonprofit Sustain Charlotte wants the line run through Uptown, with a station where you could connect to the Blue Line. As it stands now, the line would go around Uptown, and you would connect in North End.

Ron Tober was the first CEO of Charlotte Area Transit System, from 1999 to 2007, when the Blue Line opened.

While he supports the Silver Line project, Tober says it’s a mistake not to have a stop at the airport, and not to have the line run through the city center. It’s not too late to address those concerns, Tober says — the study will begin in the next few weeks, and there’s still time to do the testing and engineering work to address those concerns.

Tober is also a board member for the nonprofit Sustain Charlotte, which sent a letter to the Metropolitan Transit Commission earlier this year, encouraging the commission to consider a tunnel under uptown.

“I’m worried about what the ridership is going to be,” under the current plan, Tober told the Agenda.  “You build these things to transport people.”

He continued: “This is a 100-year decision and investment we’re making. We have to make sure it’s the right investment.”

The recent kickoff the Silver Line study wasn’t without controversy, either.

Council member Tariq Bokhari said that the city needed to have additional conversations with the community before committing $50 million.

“I was hoping to have done a few other things by now — with our community, with our colleagues here, and with staff,” Bokhari, a Republican, said during Tuesday’s meeting.

The city won’t know the final cost for the Silver Line until about two-thirds of the project has been designed. Its final price tag could be as high as $4 billion.

And nobody knows exactly where that money would come from.

The 19-mile Blue Line, which runs from Pineville up to UNC Charlotte, was funded with 50 percent federal dollars, 25 percent state dollars, and 25 percent local dollars. Funding sources for the Silver Line could look similar to that.

Charlotte residents have paid a half-cent sales tax since 1998 to fund transit projects, and this money has mostly paid for the city’s part of the Blue Line and the Blue Line extension. But CATS CEO John Lewis says the tax won’t be enough to fund the Silver Line.

In a city growing as fast as Charlotte, it’s hard to know what will change between now and the time the design study is finished in two or three years. One thing was clear in the mind of supporters, though: the cost of building a rail line won’t go down.

“If we don’t invest this money right now, we might as well say we’re not going to invest in our infrastructure,” city councilwoman Dimple Ajmera said.

The deal includes contracting with the firm WSP USA to design the Silver Line.

The study will include work such as design of the facilities and stations, as well as environmental and traffic analysis.

WSP USA, a subsidiary of Canada-based WSP, oversees a number of major infrastructure projects around the country.

The firm was selected this summer to manage a construction project at Tucson’s airport, for instance. WSP will also study “innovative technology” such as air taxis, aerial gondolas and a hyperloop as a way to improve transit in Tampa, according to the Tampa Bay Business Journal.

Jones, the city manager, says the city plans to provide progress reports throughout the WSP’s study — for instance, when it is 15 percent done, then when it’s 30 percent done. Also, the city can end its contract with WSP whenever it wants.

“If we don’t start,” Lyles told city council last week, “we’re never going to get anywhere.”


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