Charlotte City Council considering two major transit projects

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Charlotte City Council is considering two major transit projects but funding questions surround one of them.

At Monday night's City Council meeting, Charlotte Area Transit System officials presented a planned Silver Line route for light rail expansion to council members. The plan calls for a 26-mile line stretching from Central Piedmont Community College Levine in Matthews to Belmont with stops along Highway 74, Wilkinson Boulevard and at the Charlotte Douglas International Airport. City leaders are calling it, "One of the most ambitious projects ever pursued by the city."

The problem is no one knows how much it will cost.

"If we are committed to actually having a robust mass transit system, there's going to have to be some money to put out to do the due diligence," Councilman Larken Egleston said. "That's going to be the risk."

In two weeks, the Charlotte City Council will consider investing $50 million into planning the Silver Line. Planning is expected to last five to seven years and will require additional funding in the future. CATS executives told council members that a good estimate of the project's cost won't be known until at least 65% of the planning is finished.

Some Charlotte City Council members appeared skeptical Monday of a proposal to invest $50 million into a plan for the Silver Line without hard figures.

"I think what we are being asked to do here is get on board an incredibly slow-moving train where they are building the track in front of us, and there is no guarantee that track is going to continue," Councilman Tariq Bokhari said. "We have to have this conversation now before we get on this train."

"It just feels odd to me to start spending $50 million and not have any idea what the total capital number will be," Councilman Ed Driggs said.

[ALSO READ: Renovations to begin on terminal at Charlotte Douglas Airport] 

Funding sources are also up in the air. The project will likely cost billions of dollars and require a lot of funding from federal, state and local sources.

The city plans to review two potential revenue streams, such as the property tax and the sales tax.

If the county's sales tax increase for the Arts and Science Council passes in November, however, the city will not be able to explore a sales tax increase for the Silver Line, City Manager Marcus Jones confirmed. Light rail expansion was one of two major projects discussed Monday night that could affect the airport.

In two weeks, the Charlotte City Council will consider investing $600 million into a lobby expansion and renovations at Charlotte Douglas International Airport.

"The lobby that we used in 1982 is the lobby that we use today," Charlotte Douglas airport Chief Operating Officer Jack Christine said.

When the lobby was built in 1982, only 5 million passengers were using Charlotte's airport. Since then, that number has jumped to 14 million.

Click here to see a video of the proposed changes.

The city expects to break ground on the $600 million project in December during the busy holiday travel season. The construction will be over 5 ½ years and funded through airport sources. City leaders said it will be a project with six phases. Once complete, there will be more space and a modernized atmosphere.

Airport officials said they are partnering with the TSA to coordinate checkpoint renovations, including the use of automated screening lanes. In the fourth quarter of 2020, the airport plans to put the Queen Charlotte statue inside the lobby. Airport officials also said the changes will result in more retail and restaurant options for guests.

The city has recently run into numerous cost overruns on major projects, which prompted Driggs to wonder if the airport will be able to keep the project on budget.

"Over 5 ½ years with this project, how confident are you we will hit budget?" Driggs asked.

Christine responded that they are confident and that $300 million worth of the project is out to bid.

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