Does Charlotte need more roads or more rail?

CHARLOTTE — When Clayton Sealey moved to Charlotte, the Blue Line was a big factor in deciding where he would live and work.

He rides the train nearly every day and does his best to get around almost exclusively through city transit, but his biggest complaint is just how limited the city’s rail system is.

“I have limited places I can take that train,” Sealey told Channel 9 Climate Reporter Michelle Alfini.

Sealey said he’s been hoping to see more projects like it take off, including the planned Silver and Red lines. But year after year, he’s disappointed. Even if the project broke ground today, the Silver Line would still likely take 10 years to come to fruition.

“The problem is we needed to approve it today,” he said.

Can transit work with ‘roads first?’

Part of the issue is funding. Legislators have signaled they don’t agree with Charlotte’s transportation goals, which include 80 percent of investment from a new sales tax going to rail. Instead, they want more investment going to road projects, the primary way most people who live in, visit, or travel through Charlotte get around.

“[If we’re] agreeing to allow for a referendum on additional taxation, I think the members are going to want to know where the money’s going,” Senate Majority Leader Phil Berger said.

According to Jason Lawrence, the Chief Planning Officer with CATS, investing in roads can still be compatible with investing in transit.

“Buses use roads and people use cars to get to our park and rides,” he said.

CATS is implementing its Better Bus Plan, which aims to improve service by making the bus easier to use, making trips faster, and connecting communities through transit zones and more direct routes.

“Improving the whole customer experience aspect, those are stops, shelters,” Lawrence said. “Being on time, being reliable, and frequency.”

In an ideal transit system, Lawrence said riders don’t need to think too much about where they’re going and whether there’s going to be a bus ready for them when they want to leave.

“Frequency is freedom in the transit space,” he said.

That means more buses to arrive more often and the drivers to get them there. Then, he said those buses need to be able to move through the city efficiently, potentially through dedicated transit lanes, priority at intersections.

At the same time, Lawrence said CATS needs to adapt to changing ridership needs since the COVID-19 pandemic. Ridership has been increasing on most routes since 2022, but it still lags behind 2019 levels. Lawrence said a lot of it has to do with the way commuter behavior has changed with the rise of hybrid home and office workflows.

“More people are coming to work on a Tuesday than a Friday,” he said. “We’re seeing people on our express customers for example, instead of needing that 4:30 p.m. trip, sometimes they want to leave throughout the middle of the day, 3:30 or 2 [p.m.]”

The argument for buses first

Investing in bus network improvements has two major advantages over rail projects, according to Charlotte City Councilmember Ed Driggs, head of the Transportation, Planning, and Development Committee. He says they take less time, and they cost a lot less to implement.

“We might be able to complete some road projects early on and then not abandon rail entirely,” he said.

Driggs also sees Bus Rapid Transit as a potential alternative to large-scale rail projects. In concept, BRT essentially mimics rail, on the roads. Buses travel in their own dedicated lanes and rights of way, stops have their own stations and the routes are predictable and easy to follow, like a light rail.

“Some of the newer vehicles look just like a train,” Eric Zaverl from Sustain Charlotte said. “BRT could also work that way if it’s built correctly. You could build, you a light BRT, and you’re really not solving the problem.”

Zaverl said that means committing to building the stops, acquiring buses and drivers to provide frequent service, and preventing any single-occupancy vehicles from getting in the bus’s lane. All of that requires investing in and building new infrastructure, though far less upfront capital than building an entire rail line.

Estimates on the exact capital cost differences between BRT and light rail vary wildly based on the project and location. BRT can cost tens of millions less per mile to build than light rail projects, but BRT can have higher operating costs because it typically requires more vehicles and more drivers.

The argument for rail first

Sealey still believes building the Silver Line and even expanding the Blue and Gold Lines, would be the better investment.

“I go back to transit and trains because I don’t know that our roads are really meant to support more vehicles,” he said.

He argues light rail moves more people, more quickly and attracts density. The trains are usually longer, their infrastructure requires a right of way and stations so they can’t be undermined the way Zaverl warned BRT could be and Sealey believes rail is more likely to spur community investment.

“Generally, development and density follows fixed rail transit, a lot more than it does BRT,” he said.

While North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore argued rail investment seems inappropriate for Charlotte because it doesn’t have the density, Sealey points to the Blue Line expansion as proof rail can be an impetus for economic development.

“Charlotte didn’t have the density to support the Blue Line but now very much has the density,” he said.

Research also shows that while both rail and BRT are better for the environment than single-occupancy vehicles, but light rail comes out ahead when it comes to reducing environmental impact.

Can’t we build both?

Better buses/BRT and rail are not necessarily mutually exclusive and transit leaders and advocates acknowledge different modes could work better in different parts of the metro. Bus investment is necessary even if all the city’s rail projects get the funding they need, because, as Lawrence explains, rail will never be able to move passengers everywhere within the city.

“No rail system is successful without a very well reliable, connected high-frequency bus network,” he said.

For Sealey, the frustration comes down to timing. Federal funds from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act are available but Charlotte can’t apply until the MTC can prove projects like the Silver Line can match these grants with local funding.

“Sales tax is probably the best way to do it,” he said. “It’s how we’ve been doing it for decades. It’s how the initial lines were funded.”

So Sealey believes if the one percent increase isn’t on the ballot as soon as possible, Charlotte could miss its best chance to build.

“If Speaker Moore thinks that transit is unpopular in Charlotte, he needs to let it go to a referendum,” he said. “If it’s unpopular then he has the opportunity to prove urban developers, transit advocates, urbanists, people like me, he has the chance to prove us wrong.”

(WATCH: ‘A lot faster’: CATS passengers ready for unused bus lanes to open on East Independence)

Michelle Alfini

Michelle Alfini, wsoctv.com

Michelle is a climate reporter for Channel 9.