Beleaguered Charlotte streetcar project now projected to open by August

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The city of Charlotte is once again pushing back the opening date for Charlotte’s streetcar project.

A spokesperson for the city of Charlotte says the Gold Line is now expected to open by August, the final deadline established by the federal grant that paved the way for construction.

The expanded line will run for 4 miles from Johnson C Smith University to Plaza Midwood. At the beginning of the year, CATS CEO John Lewis projected a late April or early May opening for passenger service.

“When we began integrated testing, that is what was anticipated if no issues arose, but no testing schedule is exact,” a spokesperson for the city of Charlotte said. “During the course of the testing, several items, while not significant, were identified that need to be resolved by the contractor.”

The spokesperson did not say what items need to be fixed by the contractor.

The $150 million project has faced complaints, controversies and delays since construction was approved Nov. 28, 2016. A 12-18 month projected demolition and reconstruction of the Hawthorne Lane Bridge to make it streetcar compatible ended up taking two and a half years.

Crews had to stop work on the Hawthorne Lane Bridge for eight months because the contractor ordered the wrong size girders. Opening the bridge was delayed again after contractors said they couldn’t get all the materials needed to maintain their work schedules.

The Hawthorne Lane Bridge debacle contributed to the issues, and the Republican National Convention also threw a wrench in plans.

In April 2019, Lewis informed Charlotte City Council that construction of the streetcar would have to halt and testing would not be possible for up to 90 days before to the convention. The new projected opening date offered was February 2021.

“This is the first time this has happened, a construction project, a transit project in a city that is having a convention,” Lewis told the council.

After former President Donald Trump paid a visit to Charlotte for the RNC, construction resumed, but testing would not start for several months. In a January town hall hosted by Councilman Malcolm Graham, Lewis told attendees a new timeline -- late April or early May.

“I think we will have revenue service in that late April, early May timeframe,” he said.

A few weeks later, the projection from Lewis looked possible. CATS started testing the streetcar at night in February. Prior to the new streetcar’s inaugural run, Lewis stuck with the late April/early May timeline in an interview with Eyewitness News Reporter Joe Bruno. But Lewis also offered a warning about a potential problem surfacing. By federal law, CATS has to test the streetcar in the corridor for 90 days without incident.

“There is always the potential for something to not work as we expected and then that is what testing is for, we will go back fix it and then retest again,” he said.

Channel 9 inquired about the streetcar’s opening timeline on April 26. After days of back-and-forth emails, a spokesperson for the city of Charlotte confirmed the project will not open in the timeline offered by Lewis.

Before opening for passenger service, CATS will have to test the streetcar in the corridor during live traffic. A spokesperson for CATS did not offer a timeline for this crucial step, only saying it will happen in “the coming weeks.”

The city purchased six new Siemens S70 streetcar vehicles for $40 million. They will operate “off-wire” from the transit center to North Pine Street in uptown. They have 56 seats and can hold 199 standing passengers. Once open, the service will cost $2.20 to ride and will operate on similar hours to the Lynx Blue Line.