Transit Time: Buses eyed as the key to regional transit system

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With expensive light rail plans advancing slowly, the Charlotte region examines closer coordination on buses

(Photo courtesy of Charlotte Area Transit System)

By Ely Portillo

If you want to know what the future of a regional transit system for Charlotte and the surrounding counties looks like, think tires, not rails. 

Despite plans for the Silver Line to establish a toehold in Union and Gaston counties (making it our area’s first multi-county light rail line), and periodic chatter about extending the Blue Line north to Cabarrus County, planners are looking at how to integrate the region’s half-dozen bus systems to create a more functional network.  

“Ultimately, how we create a successful transit network in this region, it’ll be on bus,” said Charlotte Area Transit System Senior Planner Jason Lawrence at a recent meeting of Charlotte City Council’s transportation planning committee. “No different from here in Charlotte, where the bus network connects most of our passengers.”

Other cities Charlotte often looks to for inspiration have gone the route of building ambitious, multi-county light and commuter rail lines. Think Atlanta’s MARTA system, or Denver, with some 120 miles of rail line spanning eight counties. Six transit agencies operate fixed-route bus service in the Charlotte region, but, with the exception of a few express lines geared to uptown commuters, the current system is woefully inadequate if you’re trying to get from one county to another. Transit planners gave the example of a patient trying to get from Salisbury to an oncologist in Huntersville. Using the bus system, that journey would take an estimated eight hours round trip, with 12 different routes. 

CATS is partnering with the Centralina Regional Council to look at how to coordinate bus systems’ schedules, increase frequency, standardize fares and generally make the greater Charlotte area more accessible via transit. Part of the Connect Beyond effort, the group is planning to release its recommendations in September.

Here are four big reasons why, despite the headlines trains usually get, buses are emerging as the key to our transit future:

Cost

The Silver Line doesn’t have a final price tag yet, but it’s sure to be in the billions of dollars. And while Charlotte is looking to cover half the cost through a one-cent local sales tax in Mecklenburg County (which the state legislature and voters would have to authorize, via a ballot referendum), the state and federal governments would have to pick up the rest of the tab for the plan to be viable. 

And that’s just for one light rail line extending about 26 miles, which barely crosses over the two county lines. Building a whole light or commuter rail system across the 12-county, two-state region Centralina covers would cost billions of dollars more. One of the key focuses in the Connect Beyond planning effort is identifying how the region could cover more of those costs (even an expanded bus system would cost tens or hundreds of millions of dollars). 

“One of the most important purposes of this plan is to create a vision for regional transit, but also to help other counties outside Mecklenburg start thinking about revenue sources,” said Michelle Nance, one of the Centralina executives leading Connect Beyond. “Each county needs to have a funding mechanism.”

That could vary widely depending on how ambitious the region decides to get. At the low end of the spectrum: property taxes, the existing sales tax and cost-sharing mechanisms like public-private partnerships. At the high end (and requiring big political fights and legislative approval), Connect Beyond is studying ideas like a regional transit sales tax or a vehicle miles traveled tax on drivers. 

Leading cost figures directly into the next two factors...

Time

The lead time on building the Silver Line is more than a dozen years, from when detailed planning efforts started to when the rail line might, if all goes well, open for service in the late 2020s. A rail build-up throughout the region would likely take even longer, especially once you factor in all the jurisdictions that would be involved in funding it — and no one wants to say the region will have to wait until the 2030s or beyond for regional transit improvements. Buses could be much quicker to get on the road in bigger numbers, if there’s political will. 

Area

To put it simply, the Charlotte region is large. The 12 counties the Connect Beyond Initiative covers spans an area that’s nearly the size of Rhode Island, planners said. Our status as a sprawling Sun Belt city that grew up in the age of the automobile amplifies the challenge of bringing effective transit to multiple counties. Most of Charlotte’s major suburban communities, like Concord or Mooresville, are 20 or 30 miles from the city center, or more. Rail lines to all of those areas aren’t practical in a reasonable time frame. 

The stymied Red Line

The best possibility for a regional rail connection between Charlotte and its northern towns has long been the Red Line. But given the endless standoff between CATS and rail corridor owner Norfolk Southern (which refuses to grant CATS access to its little-used freight line), and the lack of any viable alternative, the best candidate for a regional rail corridor is still dead on arrival. 

Interestingly enough, it’s along the never-happened Red Line that we’re getting our first good look at a bus-based regional transit system. The MetroRAPID routes CATS launched last year use the I-77 toll lanes to whiz past traffic (at least they did before the pandemic eliminated traffic), with a goal of shortening commute times. CATS is also studying how to connect more bus service to those routes, increase frequency beyond just commuter-focused hours, build up bus rapid transit stations and, perhaps, bring the concept to other clogged corridors. 

Ely Portillo is assistant director at the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute. He previously spent a decade as a reporter at The Charlotte Observer.


In brief…

  • Can Indian Trail apartments attract light rail? A developer has plans for 280 apartments near downtown Indian Trail, which it hopes will help persuade transportation planners to extend the eventual Silver Line into Union County. “We want to enhance the property so that the density is approved to attract the Silver Line, which we believe would be a huge benefit to Indian Trail,” said Mackenzie Moser, a broker with The Moser Group. (Union County Weekly)

  • Route changes: If you ride the bus in Charlotte, get ready for frequency improvements, route shifts to accommodate the streetcar and other tweaks to a dozen routes. Check out the full list and changes at RideTransit.org. (CATS)

  • South Carolina smoothing the ride: Thanks to a 2-cent gasoline tax increase, the S.C. Department of Transportation plans to resurface $642 million worth of roads over the next 18 months. That’s 1,000 miles of pavement. (AP)

  • Transportation and economic mobility. Charlotte's assistant city manager and two transit experts joined Ely Portillo for an Urban Institute virtual panel last week about the link between transportation and moving up the economic ladder. One takeaway: In a sprawling region like Charlotte, only 6% of jobs are transit-accessible within a one-hour ride. Watch the forum on YouTube.

  • Mark your calendars: September will be a big month for regional transit news and the word “Beyond.” Not only will the Connect Beyond task force release its recommendations for building and funding a regional transit system, the Beyond 77 task force will also release its report. That group is studying how to relieve congestion along the 68 miles of I-77 running between Statesville and Rock Hill. The group isn’t looking at I-77 itself, but rather at the three to five miles on either side of the highway, looking to develop alternative ways for local residents to get around. (Beyond 77)


Transit Time is a production of The Charlotte LedgerWFAE and the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute.

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