Big step taken toward new light rail mega-line from Matthews to Belmont. Here’s what still needs to happen

Big step taken toward new light rail mega-line from Matthews to Belmont. Here’s what still needs to happen
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Charlotte is now officially on track to build a new light rail line between Matthews, Uptown and the town of Belmont in Gaston County by the year 2030.

But there are still a few major moving parts that must break in the right direction for the new line to become a reality.

Building on the success of Blue Line to the north and south, Charlotte transit leaders are now moving quickly to invest in more light rail.

The Charlotte Area Transit System basically finished the first step of a decade-long progress last week. The city’s Metropolitan Transit Commission signed off on a 25-mile route known as the Silver Line that would bring commuters in from the east and west — and out to the airport.

Crucially, though, the project still does not yet have money allocated for construction. That comes a little bit later.

“We are at the very beginning,” CATS CEO John Lewis told the Agenda. “We’ve got to be smart on how we move this project forward.”

Here’s what you need to know about the new light rail proposal and what must still happen for it to become a reality.

What route is on the table?

The city’s transit commission — chaired by Mayor Vi Lyles — unanimously voted to approve a route that would bring light rail up Independence Boulevard into Uptown, connecting to the Blue Line at North End before heading west along Wilkinson Boulevard to the airport and then out to Belmont in Gaston County.

Unlike the Blue Line Extension, this route would allow for a rail trail to be built alongside it.

If this looks familiar, that’s because CATS has held more than 40 public meetings around the county getting input on a few different options.

Charlotte considered connecting the east and west through a tunnel under Uptown. However, CEO John Lewis told the Agenda that this option didn’t make the final cut because it would cost more than $1 billion and not provide any more development opportunities a la South End. By connecting at North End, the future Silver Line could spark a lot more investment and housing.

“We couldn’t just look at it through the lens of moving people,” Lewis said.

CATS also considered a few other possible alignments to the west, like along Freedom Drive. That didn’t make the cut, either.

What was approved last week is formally known as a “locally preferred alternative.” This means that everyone involved — Matthews, Charlotte, Belmont and Gaston County — are all on board with it.

What happens next? How does light rail get approved in Charlotte?

Step 2: Preliminary engineering

Now that a route has been settled on, CATS can get to work doing the preliminary design and engineering work.

It will likely take 18 months to two years to get through this work and give the city an idea of exactly how much the full line will cost.

This number will be in the billions.

Step 3: Lining up the money

Charlotte’s transit projects have been funded by a combination of tax dollars from the federal, state and local level. The Blue Line was paid for with 50% federal dollars, 25% state dollars and 25% local dollars.

Since 1998, Charlotteans have paid a half-cent sales tax to fund transit projects, and this money has mostly paid for the city’s part of the Blue Line and the Blue Line Extension.

CATS CEO John Lewis said that half-cent sales tax won’t be enough to support the new Silver Line as well.

Potentially as early as the 2020 election, Charlotte voters will likely be asked to approve an additional sales tax to expand the light rail system.

Once that is in place, Charlotte will have a better shot at landing the federal grants needed to pull off a project of this magnitude.

The U.S. Congress has funded transportation projects for the past two years, and the federal government is likely to keep this commitment into the future.

However, it can be very competitive to get access to this bucket of money, Lewis said.

Step 4: Construction

Once the money is lined up, Charlotte can start awarding contracts and laying track.

This whole process takes seven to 10 years if everything goes right. This puts final completion of the line potentially around 2030.

What about Pineville and Ballantyne?

Extending light rail into Pineville and Ballantyne is still in the works. At last week’s meeting, the city announced that it will now begin studying possible routes to do this.

At some point in the future, the Metropolitan Transit Commission will be asked to vote on a route — just like they did last week with the Silver Line.

This is separate and in addition to the Silver Line. It would be another extension of the Blue Line.

What about Lake Norman?

Bringing light rail to the northern suburbs is essentially dead at this point. While CATS did study the possibility of building light rail along the I-77 corridor, that is now off the table.

CATS is going to look at making bus stops nicer along this route and eventually create new park and ride locations.

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What are the chances this happens?

It’s easy to get bogged down in the procedural steps it takes to build light rail lines, but for transit fans, this is something to get excited about.

Last week’s approval means that Charlotte is no longer talking hypothetically about light rail to the east and west. They’re now working on a tangible plan for the Silver Line.

Charlotte voters have historically supported transit projects and funding for them. It would be a shock if a sales tax increase to pay for the Silver Line didn’t pass.

Then the biggest hurdle lies in Washington D.C. The federal Department of Transportation will need to put up hundreds of millions — if not billions — to make the project happen.

Perhaps the 2020 RNC being held in Charlotte will help our case.

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