CHARLOTTE, NC (Steve Harrison/The Charlotte Observer) - The segment of streetcar rails that opened July 14 could also handle larger, light-rail vehicles if the city finds the money to build longer train lines, transit officials say.
Today's Gold Line streetcar is a small, 1.5-mile segment that uses replica trolley cars.
But the Charlotte Area Transit System said the existing rails could eventually handle faster, longer trains that might extend to the airport or to the Matthews.
There are no concrete plans – or funding – to build those lines.
But CATS is studying whether it could build a streetcar along Monroe Road that might eventually move into its own right-of-way adjacent to the CSX freight rail tracks. That study could be finished in 15 months.
"We also want to take a hard look at bringing light-rail to the airport," said John Muth, who is the transit system's interim executive director until John Lewis begins in mid-August.
He is preaching patience.
"The outerbelt was built in segments," Muth said.
He was referring to the construction of Interstate 485, which lasted 27 years.
The main obstacle to the ambitious light-rail plans is not having the hundreds of millions of dollars needed for construction. But CATS would also face logistical issues of whether longer trains could fit on uptown streets without blocking intersections.
Difference between rail lines
The Lynx Blue Line usually operates in its own right-of-way, which allows the light-rail trains to maintain their speed.
On the southern stretch of the line, there are bridges that carry the train over busy roads such as Woodlawn and Tyvola roads. Closer to uptown, the light-rail crosses streets at grade-level, but the train has priority over cars.
The streetcar is different. It stops at red lights and has to wait for congestion to clear.
Muth said the 1.5 miles of track could also handle larger trains. They could operate in their own right-of-way in the suburbs, but then merge into the existing streetcar track and move slower through uptown.
In Denver, that's how some light-rail lines work. The trains reach high speeds in outlying areas, and then slow down and act as streetcars as they reach downtown.
Art Guzzetti, a vice president with the American Public Transportation Association, said it's common for light-rail trains to operate in mixed-traffic like streetcars at some part of the line.
In the short-term, CATS and the city plan to extend today's streetcar line with another 2.5 miles of track. That would reach Johnson C. Smith University to the west and Sunnyside Avenue to the east.
That will cost $150 million, and the city has set aside $75 million. It's counting on the federal government for a $75 million grant. That money is in President Obama's budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins in October.
That could be finished in 2019.
After that, CATS is considering two new possibilities for the streetcar.
Silver Line and airport
A decade go, CATS floated the idea of light-rail in the median of Independence Boulevard.
That plan is dead. Transit officials thought the possibility of transit-oriented development was limited because no one would want to build next to the highway. In addition, the state is using the median for express toll lanes that could open in two or three years.
But after the light-rail idea was spiked, the Urban Land Institute floated the idea of a streetcar along Monroe Road.
Muth said CATS is studying that. The possibilities: Operating on Monroe Road; operating on the CSX freight rail track; or operating along the CSX rail track.
CATS and Matthews will hold a public meeting about the concept Aug. 4. Matthews Mayor Jim Taylor supports the idea.
The 2030 transit plan calls for a streetcar to the airport, though there is no money and no plans for construction.
Muth said CATS could build a spur from the existing streetcar line to the airport. One option would be for the streetcar to run in its own right-of-way on Wilkinson Boulevard, shaving minutes from the trip.
Interim aviation director Brent Cagle said he supports the idea, though the airport hasn't thought about where it would build a train station on its property.
Having larger trains on Elizabeth Avenue and Trade Street could present problems, however.
One is that a longer train could create its own traffic jams by blocking intersections when it stops.
Another potential problem is time: If CATS were to operate a light-rail line or streetcar to Matthews, it would be trying to attract commuters in a hurry.
The existing streetcar line takes between 11 and 12 minutes to travel from Novant Presbyterian Medical Center to Time Warner Cable Arena. That slow travel time could make commuters wary of using the train.