One of the fastest-growing cities in the country, Charlotte is expected to gain more than 400,000 residents in the next 20 years.
And to put the population gain in perspective: “Imagine the city of Raleigh moving to Charlotte in the next few years.” That's precisely how Dan Gallagher, transportation planning manager for the Charlotte Department of Transportation, frames the picture.
“We believe transportation is absolutely critical for the existing economy and the economy you’re striving to become,” Gallagher said. “A city is only as good as its ability to move people and goods in and around its city, and to and from other large cities.”
One of the first ways Charlotte is taking the lead on the transportation front is the reintroduction of sorts of rail transportation for both passengers and freight.
“Rail had really taken a back seat to air travel and car travel. That’s somewhat changing now that rail is coming back on the scene,” said Tim Gibbs, a transportation planner with Charlotte DOT.
Another way to get folks off the heavily congested highways surface streets is to get them walking, biking, and utilizing a state-of-the-art trail system that encourages walkability and bikeability throughout the city.
“We feel really strongly about walkability and bikeability. It’s really become a critical part of the decision-making process,” Gallagher said. “For employers looking to grow here, they want a place where their employees can walk to work or bike to work. We made that shift in our approach in the last 15 years to a complete street plan that accommodates motorists, bikers, pedestrians and transit."
“It’s not an afterthought with us,” Gibbs said. “When we talk about improving roads, the bike and the pedestrian amenities are a critical part of the decision-making process. They’re at the forefront of our planning, and brought up from the very beginning.”
And city officials are looking to Raleigh as an example of a well-executed trail system.
“We looked at places like Raleigh and we are actively pursuing partnering with Mecklenburg County and bringing forward $35 million to build a cross-Charlotte trail from one end of the city to another. It runs about 30 miles. We’re really looking to connect our suburbs to our uptown area,” Gallagher said.
Light rail and trails
The trail system also ties in with other modes of transportation, including the city’s bus system, which outfits buses with bike racks, allowing people to incorporate multiple modes of transportation in their commute.
“I think that you’ll find, especially when dealing with the trail system, we know that we have commuters coming in from five and six miles out, and we expect that to expand. The idea is to have an interconnected rail system, so that you can hop on your bike, then hop on light rail with your bike. It gives you the opportunity to mix the two modes,” Gallagher explained.
Charlotte is also a logistical hub, a fact that needs to be taken into account for a thorough transportation plan, Gibbs said.
“Amazon and similar companies have located here because we have a forward-thinking transportation plan, and we’re well-positioned geographically as far as the logistics of freight and goods movement,” Gibbs said.
Mecklenburg County voters approved its first half-cent sales tax for transportation projects, including light rail, back in 1998, then again in 2008.
"Some of our biggest developers were telling us that they were purposely following the light rail line and the trail system because there’s such a premium they can charge to be located near those facilities,” Gallagher said. “Transportation choices are a part of your lifestyle. We’re not saying that we expect you to give up your automobile. We just want to offer another way to get to work.”
Currently, 10 miles of light rail are already open from uptown Charlotte toward South Carolina, with another funded 11 miles planned from uptown to the northeast toward the main campus of UNC-Charlotte. That line is gearing up to open in the spring of 2018. Next plans call for another 10 or 11 miles of potential line that have been identified but not yet funded that would run north to Lake Norman, then another line to eventually run to the Charlotte Douglas International Airport.
Transit system options
The Charlotte Area Transit System offers local and express bus routes, LYNX Blue Line light rail service, CityLYNX Gold Line streetcar service, paratransit and vanpool, according to Krystel Green, public and community relations manager for CATS. The LYNX Blue Line and the CityLYNX Gold Line have both surpassed ridership projections and are being extended in 2018 and 2020, respectively, Green explained.
“The extensions speak to the vision of the transit/land use plan leaders set forth in 1998 and most recently updated in 2006 with the 2030 Transit Corridor System Plan.”
Green elaborated on Gallagher’s claims that the rail system attracts new development.
“Investments along the LYNX Blue Line and CityLYNX Gold Line continue to draw private investment and spur economic development,” Green said. “There has been approximately $1.45 billion in new development along the LYNX Blue Line. The LYNX Blue Line Extension is also attracting new private development along the line with over $200 million in planned or under-construction projects with an estimated new development of $4.4 billion by 2035.
“The CityLYNX Gold Line anticipates an increase in incremental property tax revenues would range from $4.7 million to $7 million per year by 2035.”
CATS plans to break ground on the first phase of the Charlotte Gateway Station, a comprehensive multimodal transportation facility in uptown Charlotte, next year. Construction is anticipated to be complete by 2022.
“This signature passenger station will bring together transportation services such as the CityLYNX Gold Line, CATS local and express bus service, proposed future commuter rail, inter-city transportation including Amtrak trains and Greyhound buses. CGS will develop and expand intermodal connections, enhance inter-city passenger rail (Amtrak) service for the region while reducing conflicts with freight operations increasing reliability for passenger service,” Green said.
The Queen City Express
On July 28, the Queen City Express made its inaugural trip from the Port of Wilmington to the Charlotte Intermodal Terminal, marking the unofficial return of rail in shipping freight.
“The Queen City Express is a daily intermodal rail service provided by CSX and North Carolina Ports to move containers between the Port of Wilmington and the Greater Charlotte Terminal,” explained Eddie McFalls, strategic initiatives consultant with the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s rail division.
“Intermodal transportation moves freight in a container, without any handling of the freight itself when changing modes. It allows shippers to combine the long-haul efficiencies of rail with the flexibility of short-haul trucks to achieve cost-effective, efficient and reliable freight transport," McFalls continued. "Transportation cost savings benefit North Carolina businesses and industries.”
According to the N.C. Ports Authority, one intermodal train can replace as many as 280 trucks, keeping them off the highways, improving driver safety and reducing wear and tear on the state’s highway system.
“We feel strongly about freight,” Gallagher said. “We have an intermodal terminal on the airport property. And we, as a city, are looking to capitalize on the expansion of the N.C. Ports.”