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A new Red Line would be slower than existing buses
A closer look at possible passengers and costs on commuter rail to northern Mecklenburg
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The Red Line train was envisioned before the I-77 toll lanes were built. Does it still make sense?
Closed Norfolk Southern tracks in downtown Cornelius. (Photo by David Boraks/WFAE)
by Steve Harrison
Charlotte’s stalled transit goals got a boost this summer when Norfolk Southern told the city it will consider allowing its O Line freight tracks to be used for the Red Line, a proposed commuter train between uptown and Lake Norman.
But lost in the excitement after the railroad’s letter to Charlotte surfaced last week is a critical question: Have the Interstate 77 express toll lanes made the Red Line obsolete?
When cities build rail transit, the biggest benefit is having a fixed travel time. No matter how many more people move to your city — and no matter how bad congestion gets — a train with its own right-of-way will get a passenger from point A to point B in the same amount of time.
If it’s 20 minutes in 2023, it will be 20 minutes in 2063. Try saying that about driving from Ballantyne to uptown.
But Charlotte has already achieved that consistency in north Mecklenburg with the express toll lanes, which opened four years ago. That’s allowed the Charlotte Area Transit System to start implementing bus rapid transit on the future Red Line corridor.
The toll lanes run from uptown to Mooresville. That’s essentially the same route as the proposed Red Line train.
The toll lanes offer travelers a guaranteed travel time because the tolls fluctuate based on the amount of congestion. If traffic increases, so do the tolls — discouraging drivers from using the toll lanes and bringing congestion down. For motorists, this can be expensive, with the cost of a one-way trip during rush hour reaching nearly $14 from Davidson to uptown. That cost will likely increase over time.
The state’s agreement with I-77 Mobility Partners allows CATS buses to use the toll lanes for free. That means north Mecklenburg transit riders already have a guaranteed travel time for the life of the contract, which runs through nearly 2060.
What’s more, a trip on an express bus from north Mecklenburg to uptown is projected to be significantly faster than the same trip on the Red Line. That’s according to CATS’ own estimates.
The transit system also noted that using buses on the toll lanes has a “low capital cost” because the toll lanes have already been built.
One way to look at it: Charlotte is proposing spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a transportation system that is slower than what’s available today.
Comparing estimated travel times
CATS projects a trip on the Red Line from Mount Mourne, which is south of Mooresville, to uptown would take 56 minutes:
The transit system estimated the same trip on an express bus would take 40 minutes:
The 40-minute estimate is probably understating the actual time of the bus trip by a few minutes. The bus schedule for the 77x north Mecklenburg Express today says a trip from Davidson to Church and 9th streets is 40 minutes. It’s 42 minutes to Church and Trade streets. Having the bus go to Mount Mourne in Iredell County would probably add 8 to 10 minutes to the trip.
But the Red Line's final stop is at the planned Gateway Station, on Trade Street in between Graham and Cedar streets. People wanting to get to Trade and Tryon — closer to where most jobs are today — wouldn’t be finished with their journey.
They could walk 10 minutes from Gateway Station to the heart of uptown. They could also take the Gold Line, but that involves waiting for a streetcar that, at least for now, comes only twice an hour. That would also add at least 10 minutes to the trip.
To sum up, a Red Line trip from Mount Mourne to Trade and Tryon would probably take 66 minutes. The same trip on an express bus would probably take 50 minutes.
The current Red Line plans call for 10 total stops between Iredell County and Mooresville. CATS could, in theory, speed up some trips by adding express trains that skip over many of those stops.
Examining the cost
CATS has not provided a recent cost estimate for the Red Line. Two years ago, the city estimated it would be $674 million. Based on the recent cost escalations of transit projects, that’s probably an underestimate. The Charlotte City Council voted to spend $5 million earlier this year for a new Red Line study.
Charlotte hopes the federal government would pay for half of the construction cost, but that’s not a sure thing.
The Federal Transit Administration this year told transit leaders in the Triangle it wouldn’t help pay for a proposed commuter train because at $1.5 billion, it’s too expensive and would carry too few riders.
Commuter rail lines nationwide have had a slower recovery in ridership compared with buses and other trains. That’s because they depend almost entirely on white-collar office workers, many of whom now work from home.
Here is a chart from the American Public Transportation Association:
Commuter rail (in light blue) has recovered the lowest percentage of passengers post-pandemic.
The Red Line will probably be cheaper than the Triangle project. But Charlotte might still have a hard time justifying the cost based on passengers.
The 77x express bus route from Davidson and Cornelius to uptown carried 17,300 passengers in April 2011. In April 2023, it carried 5,100 passengers. That’s a drop of 70% in a little more than a decade. To put it another way: The bus carried about 125 one-way passengers per day.
The Huntersville Express bus is also down nearly 70%.
Trains cost more to operate than buses. But because they have a larger capacity, they can move people more efficiently — and thus achieve lower per-passenger costs.
Before the pandemic, for instance, it cost CATS about 80 cents to move a light-rail passenger one mile. It cost the transit system about $1.50 to move a bus passenger one mile.
But to achieve those efficiencies, trains have to have passengers riding them, and the ridership drop could undercut any possible gains.
Despite the steep drop in demand for commuter bus service, Davidson mayor Rusty Knox said he believes a train would attract new riders, even if it takes longer than the bus.
“I think they’ll ride the train. You can preach all you want about new buses being clean and having wifi, but 75% of people just won’t ride the bus,” he said. “But they’ll ride the train.”
Even if the federal government declined to pay for the Red Line, Charlotte could still pay for the whole thing itself, assuming the city wins approval from the legislature and voters for a 1% sales tax increase for transit.
But it would raise questions as to whether the project is a good use of public money.
The capital costs for expanding rapid bus service on I-77 would be minimal. Since the lanes are already built, CATS could upgrade its buses and build climate-controlled park-and-ride stations. Even if it cost tens of millions of dollars, it would certainly be less than the Red Line price tag.
Would the Red Line spur development?
One argument in favor of the Red Line — or any new rail project — is that buses don’t generate much interest from developers. Trains do. It’s one of the fundamental tensions in transit: Invest in buses, which move more people, especially low-income, transit-dependent riders? Or invest more in trains, which drive splashier development?
The Lynx Blue Line has helped spark significant construction, especially in South End.
But the argument for building trains is often to spark development in economically distressed areas.
The Red Line has been envisioned as a 25-mile commuter rail line between uptown and Mooresville on tracks controlled by Norfolk Southern. The most recent plans call for 10 stops, including in Huntersville, Cornelius and Davidson. (Images courtesy of the Charlotte Area Transit System)
While the Red Line would pass through some low-income areas in north Charlotte, like Derita, and some newer developments like Camp North End, most of the line passes through some of the wealthiest parts of Mecklenburg County: Huntersville, Cornelius and Davidson.
Those towns are already seeing explosive growth. Do they want more?
Former Huntersville Mayor John Aneralla, who has been skeptical of the Red Line, said he’s not sure the northern towns want the type of density in their downtowns that a train could bring.
What Charlotte says
Charlotte City Council member Ed Driggs, who chairs the city’s transportation committee, said the city needs to study the Red Line further.
But he said the decision to proceed will be made, in large part, by the north Mecklenburg towns. Though the Red Line has been on the planning books for more than two decades, the lack of any progress toward building it — while still paying the half-cent, countywide transit sales tax — has spurred resentment in those towns
“We haven’t had a conversation,” he said. “Charlotte is motivated by the perception that the northern towns wanted the Red Line, and that the fact that we hadn’t been able to realize the Red Line was an obstacle toward our greater mobility goals.”
He added: “We would be very reluctant to question the need for the Red Line without some indication from the northern towns that they weren’t sure about it.”
Related Transit Time articles:
“Overcoming the ‘stigma’ of riding the bus” (Aug. 19, 2021)
Mayors of northern towns weigh in on possibility of the Red Line: optimism, but ‘this is not a done deal’
Elected officials in northern Mecklenburg and in Mooresville are expressing cautious optimism about the prospect of building the Red Line, following the disclosure in Transit Time last week that Norfolk Southern is now open to the idea of allowing passenger rail between Charlotte and northern Mecklenburg/southern Iredell.
Some of their comments, from an article in the Lake Norman Citizen:
Cornelius Mayor Woody Washam: “I feel better than I’ve ever felt, at least in the 10 years I’ve been an elected office, in terms of this happening in my lifetime. But there’s nothing there yet, not nearly enough, for me to ask my board or town residents to support a transit tax increase to pay for it. I will need concrete evidence — something in writing beyond this letter — to shift my perspective.”
Davidson Mayor Rusty Knox: “I’m a cup-half-full person, and if there’s something I can do to make this more of a potential reality I’ll do it, but we’ve been through this before. … Are we farther along than we’ve ever been? Yes, I don’t have any problem telling anyone that, but this is not a done deal, not close to a done deal. And I’m certainly not at the point where I’m going to push the North Carolina legislature or anyone else for a one-cent transit tax. It’s a positive sign, but not an absolute. This is just a first step, a significant one, but a long way to go.”
Mooresville Mayor Miles Atkins: “It’s significant — a positive sign they are saying they are least willing to have the conversations. But there is so much more to consider. It is a positive step, but we have to see what happens next.”
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