An ambitious transit plan for the Charlotte region will cost more than city leaders estimated earlier this year.
Rail and bus rapid transit projects alone will cost $11.6 billion, a figure nestled on the high range of what a Charlotte advisory group estimated in December: somewhere between $8 billion to $12 billion, split between local and federal funding. Amanda Vandegrift, principal consultant at InfraStrategies LLC, presented an updated financial model to the Charlotte City Council on Monday.
Non-transit costs — for projects including greenways, as well as pedestrian and bicycle networks — could cost $1.9 billion, Vandegrift said.
The total price tag for now, $13.5 billion, is a preliminary assumption that could fluctuate depending on the timeline of individual transportation initiatives, federal funding grants and a controversial countywide tax, among other variables, over an 18-year construction period, she said.
City Manager Marcus Jones assured the Council that the proposed “1 cent for mobility tax” would still cover all projects within the Transformational Mobility Network, including the Red Line and Silver Line.
The countywide tax would begin in 2023, giving a buffer for the region to recover from the coronavirus pandemic, Vandegrift said. Of the $11.6 billion in projected transit costs, about $7 billion would be covered by sales tax revenue, with the rest from federal grants.
The transit tax will require approval from the General Assembly, and Mecklenburg County commissioners would need to approve putting the transit tax referendum on a future ballot.
The City Council did not take action on the tax or other parts of the plan on Monday. But Council member Braxton Winston reminded his colleagues the plan has failed to gain traction in north Mecklenburg, where leaders have adamantly opposed the tax.
Red Line opening date
The LYNX Red Line commuter rail — traversing Davidson, Cornelius, Huntersville and center city Charlotte — has been touted as the hallmark of the interconnected mobility network.
It’s also one the thorniest part of the transit plan. Council member Tariq Bokhari on Monday said Charlotte’s plan was “dead in the water,” after Charlotte broke trust with the surrounding towns and Raleigh in the early planning stages.
North Mecklenburg leaders remain skeptical the transportation plan could benefit their residents, after waiting years to see the Red Line come to fruition. The company that controls rail tracks that’s seen as the best option for the Red Line has not signaled its intent to cooperate with city and county leaders for shared use.
But Vandegrift said the Red Line is expected to open in 2031 and cost $674 million, according to the transportation plan’s financial model.
The LYNX Silver Line would run from Matthews to north of uptown, then westward past the airport and across the Catawba River to Gaston County. The first phase would open in 2037, with the second phase opening in 2040, Vandegrift said.
Other planned openings include:
▪ I-77 bus rapid transit in 2029
▪ CityLNX Gold Line (phase 3) in 2033
▪ LYNX Blue Line extension in 2041
Carolyn Flowers, the former CATS chief executive who now is a managing principal at InfraStrategies, emphasized most transportation projects are still in early design stages. She said the consulting firm can develop four additional financial scenarios for the Council to review.
The new transportation infrastructure is meant to accommodate the area’s skyrocketing population growth, while expanding access to jobs and economic development opportunities, Jones said.
Jones apologized to the Council on Monday for confusion about earlier financial estimates for the overall transit plan, noting financing costs and interest payments are not included.
“Staff, starting with me, has to have ownership over the confusion of those numbers,” Jones said. “We could have done a better job.”
North Mecklenburg opposition
The transit plan was also a top priority for City Council members during their January budget retreat.
But the likelihood of postponed elections, due to delayed census data needed to redraw new City Council districts, later disrupted Charlotte’s timeline to let voters decide on a transit tax this year. In a separate vote Monday, the Council pushed all races, including the mayor and at-large elections, to 2022.
Elected officials in surrounding towns had already opposed the city’s schedule to raise taxes in light of the pandemic, as residents and businesses were struggling to stay afloat. The board of the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce, for example, unanimously voted in late January to oppose any sales tax increases.
In a letter sent to Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles in January, Cornelius Mayor Woody Washam, Huntersville Mayor John Aneralla and Davidson Mayor Rusty Knox said they were frustrated by the lack of a “guarantee for tangible projects for north Mecklenburg, in particular a light rail project (Red Line) connecting north Mecklenburg to Charlotte and the rest of the CATS system.”
Yet weeks later, Taiwo Jaiyeoba, Charlotte’s planning director, had updated the Charlotte City Council about newfound progress on the Red Line, a 25-mile commuter train.
He attributed it to a change in leadership at Norfolk Southern, which for years has refused to share its tracks on the O Line that connects Winston-Salem and Charlotte. The track is rarely used, and it runs through downtown Huntersville, Cornelius and Davidson.
Norfolk Southern spokesman Jeff DeGraff, though, told the Observer in February that their position on sharing tracks hadn’t changed.