Apr 17, 2024 - Transit

Everything to know about the Red Line

Rendering of a train station

Courtesy of CATS

Much has changed in Mecklenburg County since the Red Line, a commuter rail between Uptown and Lake Norman, was first envisioned at least a quarter century ago.

Why it matters: Even though the train would run on existing tracks, Charlotte Area Transit System must consider all the new development and changes in travel behavior as it dusts off years-old designs.

Zoom in: People use transit differently since the pandemic shifted work culture. It makes the most sense for CATS to target essential employees with an all-day service than the traditional 9-5 office workers.

  • CATS has noticed an uptick of riders using its services for leisure, like concerts and sporting events, and to reach academic campuses, such as Central Piedmont Community College and Davidson College.

Catch up quick: The Red Line is a proposed passenger train along Norfolk Southern's scarcely used "O" line. Progress on the project stalled in 2013 when Norfolk Southern denied the city use of its freight tracks.

  • The railroad operator and the City of Charlotte are now renegotiating.
  • There are few known details about the talks, which involve an NDA. But CATS' recommitment to the design effort signals they're favorable.

"The Red Line is a high priority for us at CATS," project manager Brian Nadolny tells Axios.

  • CATS is pushing the project forward quickly to be ready for future federal funding opportunities.

That involves holding public meetings for community members. But if you've missed those, here are four things to know:

1. The full train ride would be 45 minutes.

To go from the first station in Uptown to the last station in Mooresville, passengers would be on the train for around 45 minutes. CATS considers that time competitive compared to driving on I-77.

  • The drive can be less than 30 minutes, but traffic makes the commute unpredictable, Nadolny says. CATS says the train ride would be consistent.

2. A train would arrive every 30 to 60 minutes.

The wait for a Red Line train would be up to 30 minutes during peak times around rush hours and 60 minutes at other times.

  • The light rail, by comparison, arrives every 15 or 20 minutes. For CATS, peak times are 6:45-8:45am, and 3:45-5:45pm.
  • Unlike the Blue Line, commuter rail is meant to cover long distances. The light rail connects close-together neighborhoods.
  • There is potential to run an express route, which would skip stops and move even quicker.

3. There are 10 planned stations but there could be more.

With all the new homes and businesses along the Red Line corridor, CATS doesn't want to miss any opportunity to put a station in a growing area. (It's currently working to build one it missed on the Blue Line.)

  • That's why it's considering a stop in or near Camp North End.
  • The drawback: Every station that's added makes the commute longer.

Here's where the stations so far are:

  • Charlotte Gateway Station (Uptown at Trade and Graham streets)
  • Derita (near West Sugar Creek Road)
  • Harris/NC 115
  • Eastfield
  • Hambright
  • Huntersville (near Veterans Park)
  • Sam Furr (the last stop in Huntersville)
  • Cornelius (Catawba Avenue and South Main Street)
  • Davidson (Jackson and Depot street)
  • Mount Mourne (near Lake Norman Regional Medical Center)
map of red line train stops in charlotte area
Courtesy of CATS

4. How to pay for it is still unclear.

To win federal grants, CATS would need a local funding source to match. City leaders have looked at a 1-cent sales tax increase.

  • The General Assembly would have to agree to put a referendum on the ballot, and then Mecklenburg County voters would need to vote "yes."
  • Northern Mecklenburg County residents have historically been hesitant to support a tax increase since the Red Line project stalled.

What's next: There are two more public meetings where you can ask questions or share opinions:

North County Regional Library

  • Thursday, April 18. 6-8pm.
  • 16500 Holly Crest Lane, Huntersville

Sugar Creek Library

  • Saturday, April 20. 10am-12pm.
  • 4045 N. Tryon St. Suite A, Charlotte

Don't worry if you miss those. CATS will host more meetings this fall and again in the spring during its 15-month design process. The project's price tag will be estimated later this year.

  • Next in the project: A two-year environmental process that'll study noise mitigation, historical considerations and other potential impacts.
  • That is when the transit agency can begin applying for federal grants.

The bottom line: It seems early to talk about the Red Line when it's so far away, and there's no clear timeline.

  • But many decisions during this tedious design process will shape the county's future.
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