Jan 30, 2023 - News

Decision time: Where will Charlotte’s next light rail take us?

Photo: Katie Peralta Soloff/Axios

Tuesday night, the board for Charlotte Area Transit System will discuss the route for the Silver Line. It’s a decision that will shape the future of the city.

Why it matters: Just look at what happened with the Blue Line. The light rail sparked a transformation of its corridor, reshaping warehouses into busy breweries and attracting tower developers. The Silver Line is expected to draw the same kind of economic development that will create jobs — and then move people to those jobs.

“Outside of the Gateway Station, I don’t think there’s going to be another transit investment that’s going to have a broader impact on Center City Charlotte,” says Michael Smith, CEO of Charlotte Center City Partners.

  • But critics worry the wrong decision will result in billions in infrastructure carrying empty light rail cars through the city, and the many people who rely on public transit will be left still without a convenient way to get around.

What they’re saying: After hearing some concerns about the proposed route, Mecklenburg County Commissioner Leigh Altman toured the site where the Blue Line and Silver Line could intersect at 11th Street. She said she was pleasantly surprised with the vision. The distance between the existing and future transit stations appeared walkable, she said, and there’s potential to enliven dull spaces, like a barely used parking deck nearby.

  • “Center City is just expanding at a very rapid pace,” she said. “(Land) is vacant at the moment, but I feel confident it will not be vacant by the time this would get built out. This is the kind of foresight that we owe our constituents.”
  • She compares the upcoming decision to ones made years ago when officials were contemplating putting the Blue Line along a largely undeveloped course.

“Now, how grateful are we that we have a major light rail going through a part of our community that can move thousands of people without a car efficiently, safely, comfortably, and also has been such a wonderful activator for economic development?”

The other side: “Aside from the fact that there is no funding and no prospect of funding to make the Silver Line happen yet we continue wasting time and large amounts of money while we ignore everything else, I just don’t believe it’s a tool that will move meaningful amounts of people in the future,” Charlotte City Council member Tariq Bokhari tells Axios. “I believe it’s a powerful economic development tool.”

What’s happening: The rail could open by the late 2030s if funding is secured.

Morehead Extension: After hearing from “stakeholders,” the city is also considering extending the first phase of the Silver Line down Morehead Street, near Bank of America Stadium and Charlotte Pipe and FoundryThe complex extension could add up to $500 million to the cost of the light rail.

LPA- 11th Street/ Blue Line Station LYNX SILVER LINE LIGHT RAIL City of Charlotte Transportation
Courtesy of CATS
LYNX SILVER LINE LIGHT RAIL City of Charlotte TransportationCenter City Alternatives
Map: CATS

Here are the three proposals for the Silver Line route, which would all approach Center City from Pecan Avenue in Elizabeth:

1. The original option, also known as the “Locally Preferred Alternative” or “LPA,” would continue along 11th Street, hug the northern edge of Uptown, then run parallel to the Norfolk Southern tracks until it reaches the future site of the Charlotte Gateway Station.

  • It would bypass the Charlotte Transportation Center and Central Piedmont Community College.
  • CATS estimates the LPA would carry 31,400 daily riders by 2050.
  • The agency told Axios that it came up with its projections by predicting a shift from driving, buses and other services “due largely to travel time.”

2. The shared Blue Line option would merge the Silver Line with the Blue Line tracks once it reaches 12th Street. The car would then serve all the same stops as the Blue Line up until Carson station.

  • It’s the only of the three routes that wouldn’t directly reach Gateway Station. That means the proposed extension to Morehead Street would be off the table.

3. The shared Gold Line would merge the Silver Line onto the Gold Line tracks along Elizabeth Avenue and Trade Street and travel straight to Gateway Station.

  • The downside to this alternative is it would require turning Trade Street back into a construction zone, only a few years after work ended on streetcar tracks in the same area.
  • Sustain Charlotte is in favor of the Gold Line “but only if it has a dedicated right of way through Uptown,” the organization’s founder Shannon Binns tells Axios. “It would put the line in the center of Uptown, closer to jobs and other destinations, and intersect with the CTC as well as Gateway station thus being more useful to more people.”

Both of the shared options would reach around 30,000 passengers a day by 2050, according to CATS’ estimates.

Bypassing Uptown, the LPA touches 250 acres of vacant land, ripe for development. The shared Blue Line option goes by 198 open acres, and the shared Gold Line route would pass 160 undeveloped acres.

Context: Charlotte’s Transportation, Planning and Development Committee is unanimously in favor of the LPA and seems supportive of continuing discussions about extending the course to Morehead Street. They say it will cause the fewest disruptions during construction, and they trust in CATS ridership estimates that show the Silver Line would reach about just as many riders in the future going around Center City as it would if it went through it.

  • As its consultants, Urban Land Institute previously told CATS it would improve its chances of winning federal funding by interlining it with existing tracks, WFAE reported. They said it would cut down the cost of the project and reach higher ridership numbers.
  • After exploring those options, staff is still recommending the LPA. Charlotte Center City Partners agree the other interlining options have “fatal flaws.” Smith said aligning the Silver Line around Center City would “extend the vibrancy of Uptown, to the north and to the northwest, into some parts of our community that have suffered from disinvestment.”

Of note: The MTC has already voted in favor of the 11th Street alternative.

What’s next: CATS still needs to figure out how it will pay for the project.

  • The Republican-controlled state legislature would have to approve of placing a one-cent sales tax increase as a referendum on an upcoming Mecklenburg County election ballot. But earlier this month House Speaker Tim Moore criticized the city’s plans for rail.
  • Bokhari, one of two Republicans on city council, says he is attempting to shift the conversation to investments for 5G, autonomous vehicles and other developing technologies.

Meanwhile, CATS is working behind the scenes to design at least 30% of the project so it is ready to apply for federal dollars, another potential funding source for the project. Charlotte City Council put $50 million toward the planning process in 2019.

LPA- Graham Street Station LYNX SILVER LINE LIGHT RAIL City of Charlotte Transportation
Rendering: CATS

This story has been updated to show that the MTC will hear an update on the Silver Line on Tuesday, but a vote between the three alternatives is not planned.

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