Cost increased and timeline pushed back for light rail expansion in Charlotte

CHARLOTTE — Charlotte city leaders want to expand the light rail, but it will take some time. When the City Council started talking about the expansion last year, the hope was it would happen by 2030. However, the cost and timeline were off.

[PAST COVERAGE: Some town leaders oppose tax hike to fund light rail expansion]

The goal now is to have the project complete in 18 years. Mayor Vi Lyles said there is no time to waste.

“If we are thinking about 18 years out, we need to begin now,” the mayor said. “Otherwise, we are looking at 25 years out.”

The Red Line commuter rail up to Lake Norman would open first, in 2031. The Gold Line streetcar out to the area of the old Eastland Mall and up Beatties Ford would open in 2033.

The Silver Line would run past the airport into Gaston County and down into Union County. The first phase would open in 2037 and the second in 2040.

The Blue Line extension down to Ballantyne would open in 2041.

Planning for many of these projects is not close to starting. The city manager said this is a more accurate timeline than the original goal of having everything built by 2030.

“This is more realistic and why it is spread out of 18 years,” city manager Marcus Jones said.

Passengers can currently take the light rail from Interstate 485 in south Charlotte to University City in northeast Charlotte.

LaTrina James said that line is not convenient for her, and that’s why she’s never taken it.

“I lived on the east side of Charlotte,” she said. “Now I live in Matthews. It is just not accessible. It does not make sense for me.”

James said she hopes the city moves forward with the expansion so 20 years from now, her kids and future grandkids can enjoy it.

“She can use the light rail with my grandchildren. I will be retired,” she said.

The original cost for everything was between $8 billion and $12 billion, which will be funded with a sales tax increase and help from the federal and state governments. The city is estimating the project will cost $13.5 billion when factoring in bus and non-transit projects

“Building roads and infrastructure requires a lot of money and a lot of time,” Councilman Malcolm Graham said. “Charlotte continues to grow and so the infrastructure is needed. The question is, ‘Can we build it fast enough to accommodate to grow?’ That’s really the question.”

The city wants to get its affairs in order because it senses a possible opportunity from President Joe Biden’s administration to get funding for some of the projects.

The General Assembly will need to authorize a sales tax increase, and voters will need to approve it.

Councilman Tariq Bokhari thinks the city hasn’t been upfront with Raleigh and the suburbs, jeopardizing the plan’s future.

“Credibility of the city is a story of a death of a thousand paper cuts,” Bokhari said.

The city projects a 1% sales tax increase will generate $13.5 billion over 30 years when factoring growth.

(WATCH BELOW: Leaders provide update on light rail expansion)