Thursday, February 28, 2019

Five key takeaways from Charlotte’s newest transit plan

The chosen Silver Line route is shown in green, at right, along 11th Street. The blue line shows where the Trade Street tunnel would have run. Other options not chosen are a surface route along Trade Street (purple) and a route along the existing Blue Line.
No tunnel uptown. A light rail line crossing the Catawba River into Belmont. Finally light rail to Pineville?

When the Charlotte Area Transit System’s policy body on Wednesday unanimously adopted an update to its 2030 Transit System Plan, those optimistic visions became part of the official CATS planning process.

Note to readers: CATS doesn’t currently have money to build any of those things, estimated to cost $6 billion or more. Just so you know.

But here are some key takeaways from what the Metropolitan Transit Commission adopted.

1. No tunnel uptown. CATS hired consultants WSP (the former Parsons Brinckerhoff) to study a tricky issue – how would the proposed Silver Line (formerly known as the Southeast Corridor), get across all the freeways encircling uptown, then through uptown and head west on its route to Charlotte Douglas International Airport and over the Catawba River?

CATS’ existing light rail line, the Blue Line and Blue Line Extension, travel through uptown on a pre-existing rail corridor. The proposed Silver Line would not. It’s planned to run alongside Independence Boulevard and then head west, thereby adding the former West Corridor to the Silver Line. Any way you look at it, getting that sucker through uptown will mean complicated engineering and high costs.

One option WSP proposed was to tunnel under Trade Street to the existing Charlotte Transportation Center, a hub for most bus routes as well as a Blue Line light rail stop, and up West Trade Street to the not-yet-built Gateway Station, which would also hold a new Amtrak station. Gateway Station is also envisioned as the terminus for the long-proposed-but-still-distant Red Line commuter rail to north Mecklenburg. More about that later.

The MTC opted not for the tunnel but for a route running the Silver Line above ground, beside 11th Street, then alongside the existing Amtrak route beside Elmwood Cemetery, over to Gateway Station and then heading west to the airport. It’s less expensive to build, although the tunnel route would have cost less to operate, over time, the consultants said, and would have shortened Silver Line travel time considerably. (Update as of March 8: Brock LaForty, the Carolinas area manager for WSP, says the consultants’ analysis found the tunnel route would save two minutes per trip, a difference
LaForty called marginal, and said WSP had not analyzed whether the tunnel would cost less to operate over time. The statements about travel time and lower operating costs were the personal opinions of Ron Tober, a former CATS CEO who was working for WSP as a consultant on the project until this month.)

2. At long last, Pineville welcomes light rail. Ever wondered why the Lynx Blue Line ends where it does, just outside the south Mecklenburg municipality of Pineville? The stated reason from Pineville officials when the Blue Line was planned almost two decades ago was that the town didn’t want the high-density, transit-oriented development that would, rail boosters proclaimed, spring up all along the line. So the Blue Line ends at I-485, just outside Pineville. 

“Saved us $30 million,” recalled Ron Tober, who was CATS CEO at the time and who happened to be sitting next to me Wednesday night.

For the record, to date no high-density, transit-oriented development has yet come anywhere near Pineville.

And on Oct. 9 of last year, the Town of Pineville adopted a resolution to support the prospect of CATS someday extending its light rail line to Pineville’s Carolina Place Mall and then to Ballantyne in far south Charlotte. “Pineville stakeholders now recognizes (sic) the need to extend the line into Pineville, the Ballantyne area and beyond to ... improve the accessibility of rapid transit and provide a faster link to and from other parts of the Greater Charlotte area ...” the resolution states.

3. Finally, light rail to the airport, and into Gaston County. Someday. The proposed transit corridor formerly known as the West Corridor, and (sort of) planned to be a streetcar is now officially part of the proposed Silver Line. It would be light rail along Wilkinson Boulevard past the airport, across the Catawba River and end in the Gaston County town of Belmont. This would be CATS’ first light rail venture across county lines. Further, an ongoing Regional Transit Study would evaluate light rail to downtown Gastonia.

Gastonia Mayor Walker Reid III on Wednesday presented a city proclamation supporting the idea of light rail to Gastonia. Politically, Gaston County has been deep red, with Republican county commissioners less than a decade ago complaining that greenways were, in essence, creeping socialism. So this is progress of a sort.

The West Corridor, now renamed part of the Silver Line, would run along Wilkinson Boulevard (the route shown in purple) and cross the Catawba River into Belmont in Gaston County.
4. Still no commuter rail to north Mecklenburg, for now.  The updated plan calls for short-, medium- and long-term options heading north. Short-term would be enhanced express-lane bus service along I-77 to and from the north Mecklenburg towns, using the soon-to-open I-77 toll lanes. Medium term would be bus rapid transit from Gateway Station to Mooresville in southern Iredell County. This service would be all-day, including nights and weekends. Bus rapid transit (a.k.a. BRT) uses dedicated lanes so it’s faster than regular bus service.

Long-term, the plan would be to keep talking with Norfolk Southern about using its rarely used rail right-of-way from uptown Charlotte to Mooresville for rail transit – maybe commuter rail as was originally proposed.

5. Even some Union County enthusiasm. If Gaston County is red, then Union County is, if such a thing is possible, even deeper red. Nevertheless, the town of Stallings passed a resolution asking CATS to at least study the possibility of extending the Silver Line from Matthews into Union County and to a potential terminus in Stallings. So CATS will study that.

Remember, though, there’s no money for CATS to build any new light rail. And to date not one of the surrounding counties has proposed taxing its own residents, as Mecklenburg does with its half-cent sales tax for transit, to help build out the transit system.

Read more details here: “Charlotte unveils new transit options.”