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Second Phase of Charlotte’s Gold Line Streetcar Opens As Officials Look Ahead At Expansion

 The second phase of the Gold Line streetcar opened Monday.
The second phase of the Gold Line streetcar opened Monday.

The second phase of Charlotte’s Gold Line streetcar opened Monday, connecting Johnson C. Smith University on the west side to Elizabeth on the east side.

The $150 million expansion extends the existing line by 2.5 miles and adds 11 stops. While the first phase of the streetcar was only 1.5 miles and only ran from the Spectrum Center to Novant Hospital, the new segment makes the Gold Line a more viable part of Charlotte’s transportation network.

Charlotte Area Transit System CEO John Lewis said the streetcar’s ridership goal is 4,100 daily passenger trips a year. But with so many people still working from home, it may take longer to get there.

“Normally we would say that after the first year of operations,” Lewis said Monday morning during a news conference. “I would say probably about two years now considering the issues surrounding the pandemic.”

The federal government paid for half of the construction costs for the Gold Line. The extension was supposed to open in the fall of 2020, but various construction delays pushed back the opening by nearly a year. One problem was that the contractor needed to start over on building a new bridge over Independence Boulevard because the girders were the wrong size.

The city wants to extend the streetcar even further. The current plan calls for the streetcar to extend north along Beatties Ford Road and also to the old Eastland Mall site on Central Avenue.

But CATS doesn’t have enough money to do that. The city has proposed a $13.5 billion transportation plan that includes money for the new Silver Line light-rail line, a commuter rail line to Lake Norman and also the Gold Line.

The transportation plan needs a new penny sales tax increase to help pay for it. The General Assembly in Raleigh must vote to approve placing any sales tax increase on a countywide ballot. That could happen next year.

The Gold Line operates on city streets. The vehicles must stop at red lights, and they are impacted by traffic jams.

Lewis said as CATS looks to extend the line to Eastland, it may need a different route. He said the Gold Line may need its own right-of-way so it can avoid traffic lights and congestion.

“As we get into phase three, this will be about a 10-mile corridor and we will need to be competitive with other modes of transportation,” Lewis said.

Monday's opening also marked the debut of new modern streetcars built by Siemens, the same company that builds the light-rail vehicles on the Blue Line. When the streetcar operated previously, it used replica trolley cars that have since been retired.

Before the streetcar, CATS operated the Gold Rush free shuttle bus that went along much the same route. That shuttle was free.

The transit system is making the Gold Line free for the rest of 2021, but it will charge a regular one-way fare of $2.20 to ride the streetcar starting in January.

Copyright 2021 WFAE