‘It’s changed now’: Leaders vote to update Rock Hill to Charlotte light rail plan

A study more than a decade ago found a light rail connecting Charlotte and Rock Hill was expensive, needed more residents to make it feasible and wasn’t the best transit choice.

Now, local leaders want to see if those findings still hold up.

“This was 13 years earlier,” said David Hooper, Rock Hill-Fort Mill Area Transportation Study administrator. “The area looked different, the growth pressures were different, what was expected was different.”

The RFATS policy committee voted Friday afternoon to update the transit study. Mayors and council members representing York County, Rock Hill and Fort Mill voted unanimously to have Hooper’s group bring back figures for adding mass transit options.

The 2007 major investment study narrowed in on mass transit from Charlotte to York County. It offered 10 routes of bus to light rail to commuter train, diesel trains and a combination of them. The study considered buses on Interstate 77, bus and light rail along U.S. 21, the same for Sutton Road and I-77 or S.C. 55. It looked at extending rail on the Norfolk Southern line or linking with the light rail in Pineville, N.C.

“The final recommendation back then was the U.S. 21 corridor was viewed as the most viable,” Hooper said. “Not without drawbacks, but the most viable. Bus rapid transit was the preferred alternative.”

“I would note that light rail was a very close second,” Hooper said.

Why now?

In recent months light rail between Charlotte and Rock Hill has become a hot topic as the Carolina Panthers plans to move its team headquarters to Rock Hill. Gov. Henry McMaster, transportation leaders and elected officials have mentioned the possibility.

“It seems very clear now,” Hooper said. “I think 13 years ago it was viewed somewhat differently.”

At the policy committee’s request, Hooper reached out to the Federal Transit Administration to ask if the 2007 study could be updated. A new study could take up to two years. An update could cost a “couple hundred thousand dollars,” Hooper said. Federal money could pay for 80% of it.

“We do want to update those key planning components — the socio-economic data, the alternatives analysis, the cost estimates, bringing all that current so we’ve got an accurate picture,” he said.

Hooper and others said a decade ago there was no interest, for example, in extending the light rail line from Pineville into South Carolina. Now York County leaders say there’s more support.

“It’s changed now,” said York County Councilman and RFATS policy committee Chairman Britt Blackwell.

Mayor John Gettys in Rock Hill, whose city stands to gain from the Panthers move once it annexes the 200-acre site along I-77, says planning only goes so far.

“It’s not planning that’s going to do this,” he said. “It’s political will.”

Fort Mill Mayor Guynn Savage said she doesn’t want the area backed into a corner as road congestion worsens without a transit solution.

“It’s not going to get less expensive,” she said.

Transit option costs

Hooper said there are several reasons light rail wasn’t the top option more than a decade ago, and why the bus routes never materialized. He said costs were “off the charts” in 2007.

Bus route costs then were estimated at $10-$40 million per mile.

“The total price tag 13 years ago from downtown Rock Hill, up (U.S) 21 to Pineville, was $500 million,” Hooper said.

Light rail was even more expensive. That estimate was $30-$60 million per mile.

“The total cost back then — $1.2 billion,” Hooper said. “Assuming you could get past maybe some challenges linking up with the light rail station there in Pineville.”

Commuter rail or diesel trains came in at $3-$15 million per mile. Heavy rail transit topped the list at $50-120 million per mile.

Yet even at likely higher costs this time around, local leaders wonder if they can afford not to put some type of transit in place. The RFATS group looks at conditions throughout urbanized York County and Indian Land. They see more land being developed and more vehicles on roads almost entirely tapped out for widening relief.

“We’ve got a very built environment, with everyone going toward the interstate,” Hooper said. “And everything is basically set.”

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John Marks covers community growth, municipalities and general news mainly in the Fort Mill and York County areas. He began writing for the Herald and sister papers in 2005 and won dozens of South Carolina Press Association and other awards since.
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