Charlotte’s Once Ambitious Rapid Transit Plan Faces Budget Ax

» A significant decline in local sales tax revenue means that long-term plans for transit expansion have had to be reevaluated with an eye towards fiscal reality.

Ridership on Charlotte’s transit system has grown substantially over the past ten years, increasing from an average of 39,100 daily users in 2000 to 103,500 in 2010. This successful ramp-up in public transportation use in one of the nation’s most sprawling regions can be traced to the 1998 passage by voters of a 1/2-cent sales tax for transportation funding; this measure allowed the local transit authority CATS to significantly expand the number and frequency of bus services offered, and construct North Carolina’s first light rail line, which opened in 2007.

That Blue Line was supposed to be joined by a network of six other corridors — light rail, commuter rail, streetcar, or bus rapid transit — radiating from Center City Charlotte. The Metropolitan Transit Commission’s 2030 plan estimated that tax receipts would provide enough funding to complete most of the projects by 2020, with everything in operation by the end of the time period.

The recession, however, has hit Charlotte hard. Most significantly, its biggest employer, Wachovia Bank, was threatened with bankruptcy and eventually bought up by San Francisco-based Wells Fargo. Consumer spending, like in many cities, declined massively. In 2008, revenues collected using the transit sales tax amounted to $71 million; two years later, the total had fallen to $57.4 million. This fall-off, which is expected to produce a total revenue shortfall of up to $1 billion by 2030, has forced the region to reconsider its plans for transit expansion.

In the process, the Charlotte metropolitan area is threatening to derail the positive momentum it has created for transit ridership. And its strategy to connect the whole region via radial lines from downtown is on the skids at least for the next decade, since no one seems prepared to raise taxes to complete the project. This reality is likely to encourage the sentiment that the transit system is only designed to serve some parts of the region, not everywhere.

This week, the Metropolitan Transit Commission, which oversees CATS at a countywide level, made the decision to effectively put two projects on hold indefinitely, including the Silver Line bus rapid transit corridor from Center City to Matthews and the Green Line streetcar from Eastland Mall to Rosa Parks Place and the Airport, via downtown. The two remaining projects — an 11-mile extension of the Blue Line light rail corridor to UNC-Charlotte and the 25-mile Red Line commuter rail from Center City to Mt. Mourne — remain on the books, albeit in underfunded forms. Plans for local bus service expansion will be canceled.

CATS is looking to cut $200 million from the $1.1 billion budget of the Blue Line extension, which is expected to see significant aid from Washington in the form of a New Start grant. If it does, the project could be under construction next year, with an opening in 2016. But the transit agency will have to reduce construction costs for that to happen: In the process, the line’s length may be cut, the number of stations may be reduced, and amenities along the line will have to be minimized.

For the $456 million Red Line, no such federal help is expected because of the limited ridership projected for the corridor. But the region only has 57% of the costs accounted for, so it is now hoping to develop a public-private partnership to ensure completion by 2018. That may be a futile approach, but the corridor remains in the discussion because it would serve several cities outside of Charlotte on its way north; because the Metropolitan Transit Commission’s board is constituted of mayoral representatives of many towns, not just the much-larger City of Charlotte, it has an incentive to promote a project that would serve them as well. Thus its relatively low projected ridership is the price to be paid for regional compromise.

But the 13.5-mile Silver Line has been less lucky, despite the fact that it would terminate in the suburban town of Matthews. Part of the reason is that it has for years been a source of controversy for inhabitants of the southeast sections of the region, who fail to understand why they will receive a bus rapid transit line while the rest of the area gets rail. Yet they will now have to wait much longer for any transit improvement at all.

Meanwhile, the Green Line — a priority of Charlotte proper but relatively unpopular at the regional level because of its lack of connections outside of the core city — is in a peculiar place because its first segment is currently under construction, with service expected to start in the next two years. A $47 million, 1.5-mile stretch between the Blue Line stop at the Charlotte Transportation Center bus terminal and the Presbyterian Hospital southeast of downtown was partially funded by the federal government’s Urban Circulator program earlier this year. But its 10-mile total length, not including the long-off airport link, would cost $500 million, too much for the region to afford. This means that a rail transit link downtown between the Red and Blue Lines simply will not be built.

The end result: The expansion plan, developed just four years ago, now seems more like fantasy than reality. Nothing other than the Blue Line extension is likely to be built unless there is political will to push for a tax increase for the program or a private partner is willing to drop hundreds of millions of dollars on a project, and neither of these seem like particularly realistic prospects.

The question is whether this situation will disrupt the delicate regional structure that Charlotte relies upon to fund its transportation program. The Blue Line extension and the under-construction segment of the Green Line will serve the city exclusively. If financing for the Red and Silver Lines cannot be obtained, will the towns at their proposed termini fight to remove themselves from having to pay the transit sales tax, citing lack of a return on their investment? Will the citizens of the cities involved, who reaffirmed the tax in 2007, claim that they were sold a bigger bill of goods than could ever be expected to be completed? These prospects, which would reduce funds even further, should encourage the region to work like mad to develop alternative financing systems to complete the entire 2030 plan.

28 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • FredInRVA

    Being a former Charlotte resident, I always found the setup of the MTC very strange. Each local jurisdiction gets one representative and all matters require a majority vote. Yet, the City of Charlotte has 700,000 people, while the next largest city/town is Matthews with 26,000. I can’t really fathom why they set it up that way. You’ve effectively reversed the democratic accountability by giving the smallest population the most votes. It’s way worse than the US Senate from the perspective of proportional representation. It seems these regional tensions could really derail their long term plans by forcing CATS to try to build the Red Line even though it doesn’t make sense from a ridership perspective.

    It would be hard, though for the towns to remove themselves from the tax. The sales tax authority was granted by the state based on County level approval. Seeing as the vast majority of Mecklenburg County residents live in the City of Charlotte, I can’t see how the towns could weasel themselves out of the sales tax.

  • Tom West

    Sales tax income is below plans, so why not just stretch out the timeline?

    This seems to happen all over the US (lower sales tax revenue leads to cancellation, rather than a delayed timeline)… why????

    • John S.

      Lack of enthusiasm for rail infrastructure? Perhaps the same phenomenon that killed the ARC tunnel and scuttled HSR in Ohio and Wisconsin.

      Rail/public transit in the U.S. is generally seen as a “nice to have” thing and roads as a necessity. In a bad economy, fragile support for rail projects easily erodes.

  • Paul

    Why can’t they just copy LA’s model and take out loans for the lines, which would be guaranteed by 30 years of the already implemented sales tax?

    did i misunderstand, and that swhat they are already doing?

  • Ocean Railroader

    They could convert some of the light rail plans to streetcar lines in that if you have a city with a streetcar and a light rail line people won’t know the difference and it could always be up graded to light rail several years down the line if they wanted to.

    I bet the people that built the first streetcar system in this city in the 1900’s are lathing or are shocked at this. In that think of how this city would have saved two billion dollars if they hadn’t of ripped up the old streetcar lines in the 1950’s.

  • George

    The old streetcar lines had to get ripped up. They have no place in NASCAR country. Neither does this light rail line. What God-fearing self-respecting North Carolinian would ride a choo choo train?

    • Ocean Railroader

      Well when gas goes past $4.70 a gallon and their are comming shortages at all the gas stations and thats if we are able to have cheap gas to sell. So where at least going to have to think of something other fuel or battries to give people more choices over oil only cars.

      The secound is when we are out of highway dollars for to feed massive billion dollar freeway widining and rebuilding projects. Which if we are to keep with our pace of car only growth we are going to have to knock down hunderds of homes to make way for this super wider freeways. And to make things worse funding is drying up for these things. And for the massive muti billion projects which do get pasted need to have five and six dollar tolls to feed them to keep them running.

      It cost Vdot in Vrginia 140 million dollars to turn a eight mile long six lane wide Interstate 95 into a eight lane wide eight mile long. But it only coast Amtrak 75 million dollars to add a thrid railroad track for 12 miles two a existing double track railroad with no homes knocked down or green spaces eatten up. The interstate in this new eight lane section is still bumper to bumper while the new thrid mainline railroad track has removed many railroad bottle necks in Vrginia as a whole.

      I’m a native Vrginian and I like public transit and wish we had a lot more of it on our mono car only state.

  • Bob

    ^ I am a semi god fearing self-respecting North Carolinian who rides the lynx about 6 round trips per week. Its standing room only more often than not.

    Ironically its the NASCAR HOF that is facing major attendance problems not the transit system.

  • DaveM

    If the light rail line has no place in NC, then why would it’s ridership be through the roof and hitting it’s 2020 target numbers? As Bob pointed out, it’s the Nascar HOF that has the attendance problem.

  • The Red Line is supposed to include PTC and welded double track as part of the project … is there any functional rather than regulatory reason that hybrid diesel/catenary tram-trains could not connect to the Blue Line extension east of Parkwood and the Charlotte Amtrak Station and run through on the Blue Line?

    With PTC, how much of a time gap would be required between a tram train and a freight to count as time separated?

    • It depends on what the PTC implementation is. Some are much higher-capacity than others. Switzerland’s ETCS allows headways of 110 seconds at 200 km/h; most legacy mainline systems require much larger separation, on the order of 2.5-3 minutes.

      • The question I have regarding that is whether it answers the question: is the headway the functional equivalent to an FRA time separation between incompatible services?

        Given the target frequency, one could easily imagine a freight curfew in peak hours and freight possession of the original line all other hours, but that is a capacity reduction unless either there is also freight-only passing track installed or the time separation is short enough to allow freight to use a section of the second line as passing track.

        Indeed, at an initial 3tph, one wonders whether double tracking is required. Light rail siding platforms and 2mi/5mi heavy rail passing track could well be sufficient for passenger/passenger, passenger/freight, and freight/freight passing.

        So, is the functional equivalent of time separation for incompatible vehicles the headway? Is it sole possession of a segment of track plus headway at both ends?

        • It depends on what the signaling system allows, again – the better the signaling is, the lower the separation required is. My understanding of the FRA’s view on PTC is that it views it as perfect separation of trains – that is, if two trains are separated by the correct headway, then they’ll never collide.

          How many trains you can run on single track depends entirely on how good the scheduling is. With US freight train practice, it’s nearly impossible, because freight trains have loose timetables, which specify only origin and destination time. With a passenger-dedicated line used for commuting, it’s much easier, because passenger trains can adhere to a much more granular schedule, and the double tracking could be done at stations.

          • If the FRA has that view of PTC, then sharing a PTC signaled line with freight can take advantage of that loose scheduling, holding up the freight from entering a segment needed for passing by facing passenger trains, and then following the passenger train once it has passed.

            If its mostly single track at the moment, so it would seem that freight in one direction presently has to wait for facing freight to clear before entering. Since we are talking about passenger headways of 20 minutes in peak commute and 60 minutes otherwise, there would seem to be spare capacity during all non-peak periods to allow freight to cross mid-segment, reducing waiting in those period to more than offset any extra waits during peak periods.

          • The loose scheduling of freight is never an advantage. It’s a disadvantage: it means that the meets can’t be reliably timed, so the freight trains may have to wait longer than expected and miss their schedules. This would require padding the freight trains’ schedules.

            Gun to head I’d say that with hourly trains, even 2 in 5 is overkill. But I’m not sure – with perfect scheduling you’d need about 1 in 10, and I don’t know what the best industry practice is about meet padding.

          • The MRRS for lightly used freight rail lines is 1:5, 2:5 with a central crossover would allow a freight to sit in one segment while the other was used for passenger traffic to pass.

            The comparison with loosely scheduled freight was not loosely scheduled freight versus on-time scheduled freight, but rather loosely scheduled freight with a single bi-directional line with no sidings or passing track vs loosely scheduled freight with a bi-directional line with a number of sidings or stretches of passing track.

    • Nathanael

      I believe they’d have to cross over the intercity/freight main lines and make a new track connection, involving land acquistion, to run from the Red to the Blue line. Look at the satellite imagery.

      • I don’t know with side of that NS right of way they plan to put the Blue Line: if its on the southern side, then yes, they’d have to cross over to get into the corridor of the Highland Park spur. Though why are they running on the opposite side of the yard from the Amtrak station with no easy ability to connect to it?

        I’m not sure why there’d have to be land acquisition, it does not look on the satellite like the Highland Park connection of that yard that hosts the Amtrak station to the proposed Red Line alignment is built out.

        • Nathanael

          The Blue Line extension plans are on the south side of the NS line, yes, for the purpose of putting stations in the neighborhood there.

          It’s supposed to run a few blocks south of it actually, from what I can tell.

          The Red Line is planned to completely skip Tryon Yard on the direct route to the planned (and now funded!) Charlotte Gateway Station. It could be redirected along the spur to the north side of the yard, but then it would have to cross the main lines *and* run a few extra blocks (== land acquisition) to link into the Blue Line.

          The reason there are no plans to connect to the existing Amtrak station is that the plans are to close that station in favor of Gateway Station.

          I believe there are also track rearrangement plans to provide fast bypass tracks of the yard for the intercity trains.

          The weird part, as I said below, is that the MTC just “indefinitely postponed” the streetcar link from Gateway Station to the Blue Line…. with Gateway Station funded and the adjoining part of the streetcar under construction, I’d think that would be a high priority.

          • Thanks for that, none of that was very clear from either the Charlotte site or the Wikipedia machine. The information I was reading made it appear the Blue Line extension would be somewhere in the rail corridor until Sugar Creek Road.

            In that case, the Rapid Streetcar alignment would be from the blue line along the proposed green line alignment to Gateway, and then up the O-line.

  • Nathanael

    Gateway Station is practically funded, for intercity travel. Why can’t the MTC fund at least the extension of the streetcar to there?

    Weird priorities, weird priorities.

  • Because everyone needs their money for roads…. ;-)

  • DBX

    Sales-tax backed transit nationally is doomed, unless state sales taxes are reformed. The vast majority of sales taxes are heavily skewed towards goods, rather than services, even though consumption of goods continues to decline as a proportion of the family budget. And that’s even before you consider the extent to which goods spending has gone to the internet, where states are having a great deal of trouble in collecting taxes. Show me a state with extensive sales taxes on services, on the other hand, and I’ll show you a place where transit authorities can reasonably count on future revenues.

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