NC: Will east Mecklenburg get light rail? Silver Line to Matthews imperiled but not dead yet

June 13, 2024
The light-rail project was conceived as a 29-mile, 30-station line running from Gaston County through Charlotte and Matthews all the way to Union County.

Charlotte-area leaders are grappling with whether they can execute the long-planned Silver Line light rail project amid uncertainty over funding to make it happen.

The project was conceived as a 29-mile, 30-station line running from Gaston County through Charlotte and Matthews all the way to Union County. Recent headlines about part of that plan being scrapped prompted critical responses from some, including in Matthews and east Charlotte.

Charlotte has been trying for years to hold a referendum for a sales tax increase to pay for its multi-billion dollar transit plan, which includes the Silver Line, the Red Line and more. But that requires the blessing of the General Assembly, where Republican leaders have yet to be won over and have called for more funding for roads.

Things came to a head in recent days as multiple news outlets reported a new proposal to legislators that would dramatically cut the amount of new sales tax revenue allocated for rail, leading to the elimination of the portion of the Silver Line between uptown and Matthews.

Mecklenburg County Commissioner Leigh Altman, who chairs the Metropolitan Transit Commission, said the conversation with the legislature about the sales tax and the balance of rail and roads “has really just been evolving” recently.

“We are hearing from the leaders in the General Assembly that in order to obtain their permission for us even to submit (a sales tax increase) to the voters for them to weigh in, we have to change the mix and add very significant expenditures for roads, and that is what has caused a funding shortfall to do the Red Line and the Silver Line,” she said.

But, Altman added, “conversations are actively occurring” about whether there is “any negotiating room around the mix or around the tax to somehow bring the Silver Line back in.”

Is the Silver Line plan changing?

The plan for the Silver Line called for it to be built in two phases: a $5.1 billion “Phase A” that would run southeast from uptown to Matthews and a $3 billion “Phase B” that would run west to Charlotte-Douglas International Airport.

Like much of Charlotte’s transportation plan, the hope was to pay for it with new sales tax revenue and federal matching dollars.

The proposed penny sales tax would generate an estimated $350 million annually and unlock “a significant federal match,” interim Charlotte Area Transit System CEO Brent Cagle said in a recent email to Altman.

But Charlotte City Council member Ed Driggs said the initial idea of putting 80-90% of that new revenue into rail “was really unacceptable” to leaders in Raleigh.

“So then we came back and we said, ‘All right as a starting point for conversation, let’s think of a different allocation,’’’ said Driggs, who chairs the City Council’s transportation committee. Driggs didn’t specify what the latest allocation proposed was, but WFAE reported it was just 40% for rail.

“It is true,” he added, “if we shift away from that high concentration of funding in rail, then one of the expected outcomes would be that we can’t go all the way down” into Matthews with the Silver Line.

One alternative Driggs said is on the table: funding for bus rapid transit in the corridor that would lose out on the Silver Line. But, he acknowledged, Matthews Mayor John Higdon has publicly pushed back on that, saying it wouldn’t spur economic growth like rail.

“I think the rest of us on the MTC are in a tight spot in the sense that we have the legislature saying this and we have Matthews expecting another thing,” Driggs said.

Higdon told the Observer his understanding is that “draft legislation is in the works that may be different from what was earlier discussed” and that he will conduct interviews once “the actual proposed legislation is posted.”

CATS said in a statement that once there is a real funding source for transit, “the specifics of that funding will be used in evaluating, updating and prioritizing the Transit System Plan.”

“That may involve looking at modifications to the proposed transit mode, alignment or terminus in one or more corridors,” the statement said. “CATS will conduct a transparent evaluation process with public input to develop recommendations.”

‘Extreme disappointment’ in community

East Charlotte advocate Greg Asciutto said there’s “extreme disappointment” in his community with the news that the Silver Line plan may be shortened.

“This is the most frustrated and angry I’ve ever seen this community collectively,” said Asciutto, the executive director of Charlotte EAST. “... This is going to continue being a source of, I think, frustration for the east community all the way up until whenever it does get put on a sales tax referendum.”

Asciutto said his organization is waiting to hear more specific details on the fate of the Silver Line before taking any action.

Charlotte City Council member Marjorie Molina, whose District 5 includes much of east Charlotte, said she’s listening to constituents’ concerns and expects her community to advocate for itself and its transit needs.

“As this process goes along, we’re going to raise our hand. We’re going to make ourselves seen and go from there,” she said.

As negotiations continue, Altman said she hopes residents from the communities along the Silver Line route as well as all of Mecklenburg County will reach out to their elected officials and “express the importance” of making the Silver Line work.

“What I want is for people in the north and other parts of the county to understand how much it helps all of us if we’re able to include the Silver Line,” she said. “We can’t sort of pretend that we’re all staying in our neighborhoods or our parts of the county, because that’s not the reality of our work life and our commutes and our lifestyles here in Mecklenburg County and in the region. That’s not how we’re going to grow and have a good quality of life.”

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