Wilkinson Blvd. U.S. 74 catawba river bridge

The current Wilkinson Boulevard (U.S. 74) bridge across the Catawba River linking Mecklenburg and Gaston counties is scheduled for replacement and could be designed to include a CATS light rail line.

 

Light rail service to Gaston County, eventually creating a link between Gastonia, Charlotte Douglas International Airport and downtown Charlotte, has evolved from pie-in-the-sky pondering to inclusion in the long-range regional plans promoted by the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS).

At a LYNX system update presented to the Metropolitan Transit Commission (MTC) on Jan. 23, CATS representatives listed expanded West Corridor service as part of its vision for the future.

In the presentation, CATS Planner Jason Lawrence said the preferred western route for light rail – which would be part of the system’s Silver Line – has been selected and will align with Wilkinson Boulevard on a 6-mile line from the future downtown Gateway Station to the airport.

Options reviewed for the western route included the possibility of rail service initially following the route of Alleghany Street, then onto Wilkinson farther west, but Lawrence said the Wilkinson route proved more viable. Direct bus service from the airport area to the planned large-scale River District development was also presented last fall, but the new CATS recommendations are for the West Boulevard area to be served by enhanced bus service to the development between the Catawba River and Interstate 485.

The updated vision for the western light rail route now also includes a rail crossing of the Catawba River – blended with North Carolina Department of Transportation planned highway upgrades that include replacing the 80-year-old U.S. 74 bridge – which would be key piece of a 4-mile light rail link to Belmont.

That would also create the opportunity for the future development of a 10-mile connection between Belmont and Gastonia, which would complete the line extension.

In the presentation, CATS representatives said Gaston County officials have expressed support for the project. And the timing, with planning for the new bridge in progress, is ideal for incorporating future rail plans into the package.

“We’ve been engaged with Gaston and Gastonia officials about this and there is an interest in pursuing this,” Lawrence said. He added the chance to coordinate rail plans with the NCDOT’s planned highway and bridge improvements represents “an opportunity that doesn’t come around very often.”

The formal CATS staff recommendations outlined at the MTC presentation include a comprehensive study and coordination with the NCDOT to provide the light rail extension across the Catawba River. The tentative plans would also involve a detailed evaluation of the feasibility and framework of light rail service to downtown Gastonia. A highlighted issue in those studies would be the costs associated with the proposals – the entire project would require billions in investments – and where the funding would originate.

The CATS proposals will be evaluated by the MTC and a decision on the updated objectives is expected at the MTC’s next meeting on Feb. 27.

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