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Where Charlotte Stands in the Evolving Red Line Plan

A review of the city's transit plan post Norfolk Southern agreement

Charlotte's Blue Line rail in South End
Charlotte’s Blue Line is its first light rail project. The Red Line is a proposed commuter rail that would include 10 stops from Uptown to Mooresville. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

News broke in late May that the city of Charlotte had reached an “understanding” with Norfolk Southern to acquire the rights to its O-Line rails, train tracks that run north from Uptown and have long been a coveted piece of land by city officials eager to move forward with its latest commuter rail project. 

The Red Line would establish commuter rail service from Uptown’s Gateway Station north to Mt. Mourne in Mooresville, with eight stops in between including in Derita, Huntersville, Cornelius and Davidson. As compared to light rail, commuter rail cars are larger and stop less frequently due to the large distances they are meant to cover. 

The pending agreement was a major milestone in Charlotte’s efforts to expand its transit options outside of the city, though there is still a long way to go, as the city will need to rely on state legislators to allow it to place a proposed sales tax hike on a future ballot in order to fund the project. 

The Red Line project was first identified by Charlotte in 1998 and designed in 2008. According to the project’s plan, the stops along the route would also act as mobility hubs with bus services and first/last mile connections. 

The line’s Charlotte stop would be connected to the entertainment district with access to the Gold Line streetcar, Amtrak, and other transportation options. 

The plan’s next steps include reassessing the plan for a transformational mobility network, providing a cost estimate and involving the public and stakeholders more in coordination. Opportunities for future public involvement will include public meetings and community engagement. 

When the Charlotte MOVES Task Force, headed by former mayor Harvey Gantt, presented its final report in December 2020, the plan centered on the Silver Line, which would run from Uptown to Matthews. In the wake of news about the city’s agreement with Norfolk Southern, however, it appears the Silver Line is taking a back seat to the Red Line. 

Matthews Mayor John Higdon spoke out about the change in plans just two days after the city’s agreement with Norfolk Southern was announced. Higdon said the city’s new plan involved forgoing the Silver Line for rapid bus transit. 

At the time of this writing, the city still plans to pursue the western part of the Silver Line, which would run from Uptown to the Charlotte Douglas International Airport. 

Charlotte Gateway Station (CGS), the beginning stop in the Red Line plan for those coming from Charlotte, has yet to be built. The station requires more than $87 million in public funding from the city, with a $25 million grant from the NC Department of Transportation partially covering those costs. 

Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) interim CEO Brent Cagle said Phase I of construction for the station was “basically complete” in March. That phase included basic infrastructure for the station and raised platforms. 

CGS will be a multi-modal transportation center situated in Uptown Charlotte at the crossroads of West Trade and North Graham streets, though completion of the station is reportedly years away. The lack of an agreement with Norfolk Southern, which for years refused to negotiate on the O-Line, did play a role in the delay. 

a map of the proposed path of the CATS Red Line
The proposed path of the CATS Red Line. (Courtesy of City of Charlotte)

The movement toward a deal first began in July 2023, when Norfolk Southern’s Senior Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer Michael R. McClellan sent a letter to Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles and Charlotte City Manager Marcus Jones expressing their considerations for a transaction involving the O-line rails. 

“Norfolk Southern is willing to consider engaging with the City of Charlotte and other interested parties in the region regarding a possible transaction of the O Line,” the July letter read. 

A final agreement is expected by September. The costs associated with acquiring the rails from Norfolk Southern are still unclear. 

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With much of the project still to be built and redesigned, the payment method for construction is unclear, but the city of Charlotte is hoping to propose a one-cent sales tax increase on an upcoming ballot. 

That proposal would have to be approved by the General Assembly before Charlotte residents would get a chance to vote on it. The construction cost for the Red Line is estimated to exceed $680 million. 

Jones said he expects the General Assembly to approve the move based on current proceedings and conversations with them. 

“The business community has continued its dialogue with state legislative leaders, and they have indicated they could support enabling sales tax legislation in the current short session,” said Jones. 

He said he’s optimistic that a local referendum will take place in 2025. 

Despite Jones’ observations, past proceedings indicate that passing a sales tax increase may be difficult. In 2019, a proposed .25-cent sales tax hike that would have funded arts, parks and education in Mecklenburg County failed at the polls. 

In 2021, northern Mecklenburg officials opposed passing a 1% sales tax increase. Those officials cited the pandemic’s recency and its effect on the economy as their reasoning for the hesitancy. 

“The timing of a 1% sales tax coming out of the pandemic and recession could not be worse,” Huntersville Mayor John Aneralla told Axios Charlotte in 2021.  

Past efforts to increase infrastructure spending in Charlotte have been met with resistance from officials in North Carolina’s General Assembly. In 2023, Charlotte proposed a mobility plan that would have cost a little over 13 billion dollars and made improvements to Charlotte’s roads, mass transit, and walkable transit systems. Eighty percent of the $13 billion plan would have gone to rail transit system improvements.

a photo of the rendering of the upcoming commuter train that stretches all the way to Davidson, NC
Rendering of the Red Line (Courtesy of CATS)

In response to the 2023 proposal, House Speaker Tim Moore told WBTV that it felt like “Charlotte kept spending millions and millions of dollars on plans that didn’t come to fruition.” 

In response to General Assembly members’ concerns about a lack of road spending, Charlotte has been pushing its new mobility plan, which it calls a “roads-first” plan. 

In a recent Charlotte City Council meeting, a new mobility plan was passed in a 9-2 vote. Republican council members Tariq Bokhari and Ed Driggs voted against it. 

As reported in a WFAE article by Steve Harrison, the plan would allocate 40% of sales tax funds to road improvements, 40% to train improvements and 20% to buses. This change is a significant step back from the originally proposed 80% allocation to the train system, but is seen by some city leaders as one that may appease the General Assembly. 

As a result, Charlotte reportedly told Matthews Mayor John Higdon that the expensive and long-promised Silver Line that would have run from Uptown to Matthews would no longer be built. 

Higdon says Matthews was told the money for the Silver Line would be used for other rail projects. These plans include the aforementioned Red Line, extending the Lynx Blue Line to Ballantyne, developing a light rail line from Uptown to the airport and completing the Gold Line streetcar.

Higdon criticized the deal and its impact on Matthews in a recent Metropolitan Transit Commission (MTC) meeting.

“I think one of the reasons folks in Matthews aren’t dancing in the streets is that we have planned to have a train come to our town,” Higdon said during a May 29 MTC meeting. “We spent thousands of hours planning for a train, and at the last second, we were told, ‘No, sorry, we’ll give you a bus.’ And no one in this room can look me in the face and say the transit-oriented development of a bus is equivalent to a train.”

“I think Matthews is getting the shaft in this deal,” Higdon said in further criticism of the proposed plan. 

The initial Silver Line proposal would have gone 29 miles, stretching from Matthews to Uptown and then past Charlotte Douglas International Airport. Earlier this year, it was estimated that the completion of the Silver Line would cost around $8 billion. 

CATS, which manages Charlotte’s public transportation, operates over 20 light rail vehicles every day. Ridership on CATS’ transit systems is still recovering post-COVID, but 4 million passenger trips were reported between July and September 2023 by CATS. This figure jumps 11% from 2022’s ridership in the same period but continues an upward trend in ridership since taking a 65% dip in 2020.

Something else that may factor into the dip in ridership is the percentage of Mecklenburg workers who said they worked from home. In 2022, an American Community Survey and Census Bureau survey found that 30.3% of Mecklenburg County workers who were surveyed said they work from home, almost double the national average of 15.2%. 

Future possible upgrades in Charlotte’s transit system may improve these commuter numbers. Still, if a majority of the voting Charlotte population has to pass a sales tax increase that does not affect them, the upgrades may not have the opportunity to happen in the first place.

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