Less than two weeks ago, the Charlotte Area Transit System cut the ribbon on a $1.2 billion extension of the Lynx Blue Line, beginning revenue service on a line running from uptown to UNC Charlotte’s main campus.
Adding 9.3 miles to the existing Blue Line that goes from uptown to Pineville and expected to spur significant development, much as the original leg did in places like South End, CATS is faced with what the future of transit looks like in the Charlotte metro area. Its 2030 Vision Plan calls for building three lines — westward out to Charlotte Douglas International Airport, southeast to Matthews and a commuter line north to Mooresville — concurrently over the next 12 years.
Early cost estimates to build those lines are between $6 billion and $8 billion, according to CATS CEO John Lewis.
But with fewer available funds at the state and federal level, CATS is tasked with figuring out how to pay for the three lines. The transit agency has previously discussed public-private partnerships as one option but more money from taxpayers seems inevitable. A half-cent tax is currently in place for transit projects, which passed in 1998.
At the state level, a funding cap remains that allows a maximum of 10% of state funding for light-rail projects. That cap, originally at $500,000, was instated in 2015 and has drawn criticism from legislators in both parties since it was enacted. Federal grants paid for 50% of the Blue Line Extension while state and local governments each paid 25%.
During a wide-ranging interview with reporters from the Charlotte Business Journal and the Triangle Business Journal, Gov. Roy Cooper said a light-rail funding cap should not exist and indicated transit is a priority for infrastructure investment in North Carolina going forward.
Cooper referenced public transportation as an issue when it comes to recruiting Amazon, which is underway on its search for a second headquarters that promises 50,000 jobs and significant economic investment for the winning city. Raleigh is one of 20 finalists for the project, dubbed Amazon HQ2, but the metro area does not have mass transit, which was listed as a key criteria for Amazon in its initial request for proposals. Charlotte did not make the shortlist, with an Amazon representative telling the Charlotte Regional Partnership that a lack of tech workers compared to other markets held the Queen City back.
In Seattle, where Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) is based, much of the campus was built along the city’s streetcar route. Many of the Amazon finalists have some form of mass transit.
“We need to move to more public transportation, and I think that it’s been a successful project in Charlotte over the years,” Cooper said.
He continued, saying the state is watching what goes on at the federal level for infrastructure investment. The Trump administration rolled out an infrastructure plan last month, which proposes the federal government put up to $200 billion in grants for infrastructure over the next 10 years, with state and municipal governments adding their own funds for projects that would purportedly equate to $1.5 trillion in infrastructure investment nationally over the next decade.
“(The infrastructure plan) is not as big and positive as we thought it would be,” Cooper said. “They say it’s $1.5 trillion but upfront it’s $200 billion coming from not necessarily new revenue — it’s coming from TIGER grants or other revenue.”
He said while the plan was “underwhelming,” the $50 billion allotted for rural infrastructure in the plan was one plus, since that’s something he said is needed. The Trump infrastructure plan calls for states to receive $50 billion in federal grants to help finance rural projects.
But, Cooper continued, North Carolina will have to look for new avenues to fund big transportation projects, including the light-rail lines proposed in CATS’ 2030 Vision Plan. He said states will have to be “innovative” to fund any infrastructure projects moving ahead.
“You can just see the development that has occurred along the line and the positive things that have happened — (there’s now) light rail to UNC Charlotte, connecting education and business,” he said.
CATS is currently underway on studies for the Lynx Red Line and Lynx West Corridor to determine the best vision for those corridors when it comes to mass transit. The agency last year wrapped up a study of the Lynx Silver Line, which determined light rail to be the best method for transit down Independence Boulevard.