Charlotte's Northeast Corridor Light Rail Line Underfunded, Likely to be Shortened

» Extension of the city’s successful first rail transit line, now years behind schedule, is to be further delayed.

Just weeks before the opening of their first light rail line in November 2007, Charlotte’s voters affirmed their commitment to the city’s transit expansion, voting by a large margin to continue the collection of a dedicated half-cent sales tax first approved in 1998. Their endorsement of the city’s public transportation was founded on the sense that Charlotte’s growth needed to be reconfigured around walkability and transit use. One place everyone in this New South city did not want to imitate was Atlanta, whose unchecked sprawl is not particularly appealing.

The 10-mile South light rail line, from Center City to I-485 via the South End, has seen ridership shoot far above initial expectations. And the city’s bus system has seen ridership double since 2000, from 34,000 daily riders to 77,000.

CATS, the city’s transit system, laid out a plan in 2006 (furthering a proposal from 1998) to extend the reach of the rapid transit network with five new lines radiating from downtown in the form of light rail, commuter rail, bus rapid transit, and streetcars. Most promising was the 11-mile Northeast line, which would extend the existing light rail corridor by 2013 from downtown past the University of North Carolina at Charlotte to I-485 and attract almost 20,000 riders a day by 2030.

Yet the effects of the recession have been particularly difficult for Charlotte, which endured not only the loss of tax revenues common in every American city, but which also had its primary employer, Wachovia Bank, get bought up by San Francisco-based Wells Fargo. By early 2009, it was clear that the ambitions behind the plans just three years before were way out of reach — the Northeast Corridor, now the only project advancing much at all, would be delayed to 2019. A streetcar line planned for downtown would have to be sponsored by the city if it were to be built.

Now that the effects of the poor economy have settled in, the future of the city’s transit network is in doubt: The Northeast corridor’s full reach could be shrunk to just four or five miles in face of declining funds, with the rest delayed virtually indefinitely.

The biggest problem is that Charlotte’s tax revenues haven’t kept up with expectations. CATS will receive $60 million in returns this year, about the same as was collected five years ago. Much like Dallas and Denver, the city estimated large increases in revenue when it planned the construction of its transit network, but it now has hardly enough to maintain its bus system.

At a cost of $1.14 billion, the Northeast corridor would be more than twice as expensive as the city’s first light rail line, far too much for CATS to afford even though it is planning to contribute only a quarter of the project’s construction costs, with the federal government likely to make a commitment for half and the State of North Carolina pitching in 25%. When originally discussed, the project was supposed to cost $741 million. Thus the announcement that the program’s length will be substantially cut to a $350-400 million segment from Center City to Sugar Creek Road, just four miles northeast of downtown.

For the sake of the system’s ridership potential, this could cause major difficulties. Unlike the South corridor, which ran through a wealthy area that was already undergoing densification, the first few miles of the Northeast line don’t reach much, with the exception of the still-small NoDa arts district in the environs of 36th Street. The big ridership generator — the university north of town — would be left for a future phase.

The city’s planners note that the Sugar Creek station would be the first on the Northeast line with a park and ride, so commuters coming in from the northern suburbs could park there before heading into downtown. The South corridor has seen significant ridership at its southernmost I-485 station, where virtually all users come by car. Yet that stop is located directly adjacent to an interstate highway, not true of the planned Sugar Creek station; how many drivers will go out of their way to park their car and then travel by train just four miles into downtown? Only when the line extends all the way to the northern limits of the city, at the other side of the circumferential I-485 road, will the Northeast corridor be able to attract a significant number of people who are driving.

Nonetheless, there’s not much else that Charlotte can do. With few funds for network expansion, it may be useful to invest in a short extension of the existing line if that’s all the city can afford. For the long-term, however, this region may need to find a new source of transportation funds if it wants to get anything big done.

Update, 26 May: Olaf Kinard, CATS Director of Marketing and Communications wrote me with the following comment:

“CATS has not announced nor has any plans to phase in the Northeast Corridor.  If you are referencing your story on The Charlotte Observer article, they took liberties with a hypothetical questions they posed about the technical ability of where the closest stop would be in which the line could open up.  CATS did not announce any change in our plans to build out the entire Northeast line to the end of the line.  You also mentioned that CATS had estimated large increases in sales tax which is the cause of a funding issues.  This is not the case.  Financial projections of future sales tax revenues were based on average rates of increases.  The issue that all transit systems and businesses are faced with is that the recession caused a significant drop in the revenues and thus a new base from which to grow from.  CATS is currently pulling in sales tax revenue at a level equivalent to the 2004/ 2005 annual level.  Projecting that new base out 10 years at a conservative rate of increase of approximately 3% creates a $350 million difference from the 2006 projects during the same time.  This issue is caused by the new lower based caused by the recession not the cost of the projects.”

Image above: Charlotte Northeast Corridor Rail map, from CATS

6 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Mason Hicks

    “The city’s planners note that the Sugar Creek station would be the first on the Northeast line with a park and ride, so commuters coming in from the northern suburbs could park there before heading into downtown.”

    I grew up outside of Charlotte, but never on that end of town, but I suspect that like most commutes, the most deadlocked portion comes on the approach to the city core, and not the core itself. If that’s the case here, locating the outer park-and-tide station at Sugar Creek Road would provide the classic commuting choice of whether to park the car or drive on in,now that the worst of the traffic is already behind you, before you get to an alternative. I really wish that the existing Lynx South line was in place while I still lived there. I would’ve been on it constantly. I’m saddened by the scaling back that Charlotte is doing to its transit planning. They came into the second half of the decade with big plans. There was even informal talk about running the first hydrogen-powered commuter train along the proposed North Corridor commuter rail (existing CSX ‘O’) line to Mooresville and Davidson.

  • Ocean Railroader

    This new commuter parking lot could work but it depends on how much it costs to park the car in down town Charlottle? Such as it costs $7.00 dollars to park in down town Norfolk VA and they also add a dollar every hour and $3.50 to $5.00 om Richmond VA. If parking is free at this park and ride then it could be a big hit.

  • dejv

    Isn’t this extension prime candidate to cut width instead of length, to be able to reach University as soon as possible, albeit at lower frequency?

    Typo report: … to park their car and …

  • CLT

    If it doesn’t reach UNCC I honestly don’t see how the ridership will justify rail. I question whether a shorter line would score well under federal criteria because I would guess the University was by far the major anchor and ridership generator along the line. The area between Uptown and Sugar Creek is pretty low density and I’d hate to see a lack of success on the inner part of this line doom the more warranted connection to the University area. A park and ride doesn’t generate the all-day demand needed to make light rail really work. Sad.

  • Rick

    This line was never intended to go all the way to UNCC in one shot. The funding available under the 1/2cent tax never ever came close to covering what was promised. The only reason UNCC was included in the discussion was to keep the University area of the city on board (pun intended) with the transit boondoggle. The scam all along was to get things moving then go back to the public for more taxes. The economy has thrown a long-term wrench into that plan. Now CATS is being forced to cut this line back to just Sugar Creek. The telling part of all this is that way back in the beginning of this mess, this extension was to be in two phases with the first stopping at Sugar Creek. All that’s happened is that CATS is going back to their original plan. The only people who should be upset are the University residents who bought the scam in the first place. They should (and do) feel foolish.

    As for Mr Kinard’s response to your piece, CATS is now scrambling because they don’t want to give the appearance that they’ve given up, but they would not have finally floated this option in public, an option that’s been around for long time, if it wasn’t being discussed.

    Also, he states that the financial troubles are because of the recession. What he fails to admit, is that CATS’s earlier projections were that there would NEVER, EVER be a recession. If you ever see one of their presentations, their original projections went up forever without any dips or flattening. Since recessions, even mild ones, are expected periodic events, this was a built in timebomb waiting to happen. CATS’s real issue is that they thought when the “unexpected” recession happened, they’d be able to push through another tax to cover any difference. Thanks to the political and economic environment they don’t really have that option now. That’s their real problem. They can’t execute their plan to grab more taxpayer cash. Over two years ago, long before the recession, I was at a public meeting in the University area where this idea was already being floated. There’s a 1/4 cent tax the CATS folks have always wanted to get their hands on for transit. Now, in this economy, if that tax does get implemented, it won’t be for transit. It will be for keeping libraries opened and teachers in schools.

    (By the way, I’m a regular bus rider, and not a reflexive mass transit oponent. I just want this to be honestly reported with more of the facts.)

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