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Garden Parkway opponents say 'Lets look at light rail'

The opponents of the proposed NCTA Garden Parkway in Gaston County are pointing to what they consider a better - and cheaper - option for the area, light rail. A recent study by the city of Gastonia on light rail from the Gaston County seat to Charlotte has caught the attention of the group 'Stop the Toll Road'.

The $35,000 study took place this past summer, and as a result, it has added a new dimension into the debate on whether or not the over $1 billion toll road should be built.

The study estimates it would cost between $250-300 million to convert 22 miles of the former Piedmont & Northern Railway into light rail. Trains last ran along the tracks in 1991. Today, most of the right-of-way is owned by the NC Rail Division; however, it has been slowly converted into a greenway. The P&N ran numerous passenger and freight trains between Gastonia and Charlotte in the early 20th Century.

The route would include eastern Gaston towns: Ranlo, Lowell, McAdenville, Mount Holly, and could include a small spur into Belmont.

Stop the Toll Road sees the light rail option as a cheaper and cleaner alternative to the Garden Parkway. They point to the successful (and even surprising success to critics and supporters alike) Charlotte Lynx Blue Line. The 9.6 mile light rail line that parallels Charlotte's busy South Blvd. opened in 2007.

Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) is looking to expand light rail in Mecklenburg County in all directions from Charlotte - but has no plans of extending any rail into Gaston County. Proponents of the Gastonia-Charlotte light rail admit that in order for the line to get anywhere close to a reality Charlotte and Mecklenburg County would have to be on board.

“We need Charlotte to get engaged in this,” said Gastonia Mayor Jennie Stultz.

The Stop the Toll Road group believes that "...commuter rail would help put soul and life back into our struggling community downtowns and grow jobs just as it has along Charlotte's light rail."

But there are a few drawbacks to the proposal and assumptions based on the success of the South Blvd. line shouldn't be made about a Gastonia-Charlotte line.

First, one of the benefits of the Lynx Blue Line is the density of population along the South Blvd. corridor. Something that Gaston County doesn't have. The drawing point is that many people can easily walk to the Blue Line from condos, homes or apartments. Closer to the city, the Blue Line also runs through some of Charlotte's more popular entertainment and residential neighborhoods. The biggest commuter draw is the southern end of the line at I-485.

These are just a few things that Gaston County just doesn't have. Though stops in Mount Holly, McAdenville, and possibly Belmont will provide some population density, the rail line would be more of a commuter route. Plus, unlike the more direct South Lynx route - the former P&N route follows a more local route. In other words, I-85 from Gastonia to Uptown Charlotte may still be faster.

The fact that any route into Gaston County would be more commuter driven means that there has to be a true benefit to commuters in order for it to attract customers. And I don't see that.

A similar situation that CATS currently is considering is a commuter rail route paralleling Interstate 77 north of the city via Huntersville and Davidson towards Statesville. This is also more of a commuter route as it also lacks the density of the Lynx Blue Line. The heavier rail means higher costs. If a heavier rail is considered for the Gaston-Charlotte line, costs will go up.

Another concern is retrofitting the former P&N bridge over the Catawba River. How old is the bridge and could it handle light or heavy rail. I am sure it would need to be updated to modern standards.

Personally, I am all for as many transit options in a metro area as possible. Though I haven't ridden the Blue Line - I have been supportive of it. But the Blue Line makes sense, and for any mass transit to work - it has to make sense. And I'm not sure if light rail from Gastonia to Charlotte (along the former P&N) line makes sense if the goal is to reduce congestion along I-85.

Sources:
Gastonia to Charlotte light rail could cost $300 million ---Gaston Gazette
October 2009 ~ Stop the Toll Road Update - E-mail from 'Stop the Toll Road'

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