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A consultant working for CATS, left, explains the facets of the proposed light rail along Wilkinson Boulevard to a resident Aug. 21 at the Gaston College Kimbrell Campus.

BELMONT – Following the opening of the Blue Line Extension in March, the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) has turned its sights on the West and North corridors, where rapid transit options are being explored.

And a final public forum held at Gaston College’s Kimbrell Campus offered a glimpse of how residents of both Mecklenburg and Gaston counties viewed a light rail line connecting them with uptown Charlotte and beyond. The Aug. 21 meeting allowed CATS Planner Jason Lawrence to educate the public on what CATS is proposing and for the organization to start to collect feedback on the options.

Finding answers

Since the Metropolitan Transit Commission adopted an alignment for light rail from Uptown to Charlotte-Douglas International Airport and beyond, there are two base options for the path. Both would run along Wilkinson Boulevard from Belmont to at least the airport, but one veers slightly north at Mulberry Church Road and goes along Alleghany Street and later Freedom Drive and Tuckaseegee Road, entering Uptown north of Morehead Street. The other runs almost exclusively along the Wilkinson corridor and would cross Interstate 77 and John Belk Freeway to enter Uptown.

But the big question Lawrence posed is if the rail would cross the Catawba River into Gaston County, and just how far it should run.

“Where is the most appropriate end for that to occur?” Lawrence said at the meeting, noting how the Blue Line runs 19 miles from UNC-Charlotte to just north of Pineville. “It would be a question of how far is too far, how short is too short?

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Those who attended the community meeting at Gaston College Aug. 21 gave their thoughts on sticky notes regarding the proposed light rail project into Gaston County.

“The linchpin is getting across the river into Gaston County.”

Having such a project enter Gaston is something local officials are ready to see.

“More transportation options are needed to provide greater mobility to our existing residents as well as the growing population,” said Randi Gates, principal transportation planner for the Gaston-Cleveland-Lincoln Metropolitan Planning Organization. “Better connectivity to the (airport) is extremely important.”

Lawrence said making that connection requires coordinating with the N.C. Department of Transportation and Gaston County to replace the bridge over the Catawba that was built in 1933.

“Let’s start that conversation now,” he said.

CATS already extends its footprint into Gaston with the Gaston Express bus line. And the ridership in July was 3,232 – a 22 percent increase from the same month a year ago.

The line takes passengers from Uptown onto Interstate 85 south, making stops on Wilkinson Road in Belmont and again at the Gastonia Transportation Center.

Gaston County also has a program called ACCESS that uses van service to provide subscription routes as well as demand response.

The other bus line most affected by a light rail along Wilkinson is the Sprinter, which makes 11 stops between Uptown and the airport. CATS did not provide ridership numbers for that line.

But given the ever-growing nature of the country’s 10th busiest airport, CATS’ relationship with Charlotte-Douglas is paramount. Lawrence noted a rail wouldn’t be able to reach the terminal without logistical issues with Norfolk Southern and the Federal Aviation Administration.

“Fortunately, we’re working very closely coordinating with the airport to have a station near Wilkinson and Little Rock Road,” Lawrence said in a phone interview.

Impacts of the rail

With the kinds of development that have occurred along the Blue Line, Lawrence foresees a similar trend for the West Corridor.

“With the development along South End and what we’ve seen to the north, there’s a lot of economic progress,” he said.

Mount Holly and Belmont have been growing much faster than the rest of the county, and Mount Holly Planner Brian DuPont expects it will continue.

“The City of Charlotte has proven the ‘if you build it they will come’ scenario does occur with light rail investments,” DuPont said in an email, “Parallel this initiative with the River District project in Charlotte, the 2.5 million square foot Amazon Distribution center adjacent to I-85 and 485 under construction, and the plans for the Charlotte-Douglas airport expansion – it is inevitable that other investment in both western Mecklenburg County as well as eastern Gaston County will occur.”

CATS finished collecting online survey responses about the rail options at the end of the month, and as of Aug. 27 had close to 2,000 voice their opinion. Lawrence said he hopes to have a design in place next year, and if the project were to be financed, the project, which would ultimately connect to Matthews as the Silver Line, would be completed in 10-12 years.

For DuPont, managing the growth from the light rail will take a collaborative effort from parties on either sides of the river.

“The most crucial piece to all of this occurring over the next 10-20 years is thoughtful, intentional regional planning and coordination,” DuPont said. “Mount Holly, Belmont and the rest of Gaston County are doing our part when we have the opportunity to coordinate with Charlotte and Mecklenburg County.”

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