After two decades of talk, CATS moving forward with train to airport

After two decades of talk, CATS moving forward with train to airport
Provided to The Charlotte Observer courtesy of Charlotte Area Transit System
Provided to The Charlotte Observer courtesy of Charlotte Area Transit System

CHARLOTTE, NC (Steve Harrison/The Charlotte Observer) - Atlanta and Washington, D.C. have one. So does Miami, Boston and Philadelphia.

They all have train service to their airport, giving business and leisure travelers an easy way to make their flight from downtown.

As Charlotte looks to expand its transit system in the next decade, the Charlotte Area Transit System has made a airport rail line a priority. CATS wants to simultaneously build rail from the airport to Matthews, along with a rail line to Lake Norman.

Over the last 20 years, an airport train has been proposed in many different forms.

When CATS was planning its first light-rail line 15 years ago, it chose the South Boulevard corridor over the airport because its ridership models showed there weren't enough riders in west Charlotte to qualify for federal funding. The transit system then proposed a streetcar line that would run from uptown to the airport along Wilkinson Boulevard.

At that time, under the President George W. Bush administration, streetcars weren't eligible for federal funding.

The most recent plan is for a light-rail line – most likely in its own right-of-way – to link uptown to the airport. CATS has hired a consultant, WSP, to the study the west corridor line as well as a rail line to Lake Norman. CATS wants to build three rail lines at once, which could cost between $5 billion and $7 billion. CATS recently held four meetings with residents to get their feedback on the airport train.

There are still a number of unknowns about the airport rail line.

Will it be built along Wilkinson Boulevard or West Boulevard? Will it dead-end at the planned River District or will it continue across the U.S. 74 bridge into Gaston County? The River District is a massive development planned on 1,400 acres west of the airport.

With construction years away, there is already discussion – perhaps jockeying – over where the line would go after reaching the passenger terminal.

Some Gaston officials would like to see the train continue running alongside Wilkinson Boulevard, where it could cross the Catawba River on the U.S. 74 bridge.

Adrian Miller, the city manager of Belmont, said he's spoken with the N.C. Department of Transportation about having enough space for light rail if and when the state rebuilds the U.S. 74 bridge over the Catawba River. The DOT will evaluate and rank the project this spring.

"We can plan for light rail," Miller said. "Let's don't build a bridge that would cost $50 or $70 million (and not have room for rail). Let's do it right the first time."

Meanwhile, the developers of the River District have said they would like to see CATS bring the train to their doorstep. That would be about three miles south of the U.S. 74 bridge over the Catawba River. That would mean that CATS either builds the train along West Boulevard – or the train would take a sharp turn to the south after it reaches the airport.

WSP is studying both the Wilkinson Boulevard and West Boulevard alignments. But over the last several months, the benefits of building along Wilkinson have become apparent.

The biggest benefit is that it's closer to the airport.

Charlotte Douglas International Airport is planning to build a people mover from the terminal to Wilkinson Boulevard, where the airport wants to build a large new development of offices, retail and restaurants. A light-rail station on Wilkinson could seamlessly connect to the people mover. There has also been discussion of building an Amtrak station on the same site, to allow people to reach the airport from Salisbury, Concord and other cities.

The airport doesn't have a firm timetable for the people mover, though it could be built in the next decade.

A train along West Boulevard wouldn't connect to the airport's people mover. It would require passengers to take a bus from a rail station south of the airport to the terminal.

John Lewis, chief executive of the Charlotte Area Transit System, said in an interview last week that the Wilkinson Boulevard alignment has "obvious benefits."

"But if we go along Wilkinson, how do we serve the River District?" he said. "We are still trying to answer that question."

City Council member LaWana Mayfield, who represents west Charlotte, said she thinks building the train on Wilkinson is the best option. One reason, she said, is that the city is working to calm traffic on West Boulevard and make it safer for pedestrians.

"That would thwart the work that we are trying to go, to make it more pedestrian friendly," she said.

Mayfield said she would also like to see the rail line run directly to the passenger terminal. That would allow passengers to walk off the train and go directly to the ticket counter, instead of taking a people mover.

Mayfield said one way to bring the train directly to the terminal would be a tunnel, allowing it to go under part of the airfield as it enters and exits the airport.

In Atlanta and Washington D.C., passengers can take a train directly to the terminal, without a people-mover.

In the original 2030 transit plan, CATS said rail transit to the airport would likely be a streetcar. There is now a growing consensus that light rail would make more sense.

One reason is that a streetcar operates in mixed traffic with cars. It stops for red lights and can be slowed by congestion. If people are worried about making their flight, they might be wary of a streetcar.

The current idea is for the airport train to be an extension of the Silver Line, a planned light-rail line along Independence Boulevard.

WSP is also studying how to connect the west corridor with the Silver Line. The consultant is considering whether to build a tunnel through uptown, or whether there is a cheaper, easier way for the rail line to pass through the center city.

After WSP finishes its report, CATS must begin selling the public on how to pay for the plan. Even with state and federal grants, CATS would need some sort of new revenue stream, most likely a new transit sales tax.

The west corridor train to the airport would likely cost at least $500 million. It's unclear whether CATS would ask the airport to help pay for the airport train.

Four years ago, the General Assembly created an authority to oversee the airport, in an attempt to take it from the city. Legislators said they acted because they thought the city was trying to use airport revenue to build a streetcar to the airport.

A 2013 transit funding work group had originally proposed using airport Passenger Facility Charges – paid by the airlines – to help pay for the train once it operated on airport property, according to a city memo. But after the issue become controversial, the city decided against that, removing all references to the airport and airlines helping pay for a train.