The Rail Trail is one of the biggest successes in Charlotte development.
Running alongside the original Blue Line, this multi-use path brings walkers, joggers, and bikers up and down the heart of South End. On a pleasant afternoon, you’ll see scores of people brewery hopping, walking their dogs or commuting from work.
It’s quickly become one of Charlotte’s most distinctive destinations under the direction of Charlotte Center City Partners. The Rail Trail has been continually improved over the past few years, with art installations, murals and gathering places. And more are on the way.
But as you follow the trail north toward the brand-new Blue Line Extension, you get stopped short.
After crossing through a colorfully painted underpass, the Rail Trail ends abruptly at 12th Street on the north side of Uptown.
An on-street bike path then takes you over to Brevard Street, but that too dead-ends quickly into construction.
Why does it end here? The primary reason is technical. The alignment of the Blue Line Extension does not lend itself to a shared-use path alongside it the way it is in South End.
But the larger reason is a frustrating reminder of Charlotte’s history of transit planning. Though it’s certainly a case of Monday morning quarterbacking, it’s clear now that Charlotte leaders didn’t realize what they had with the Rail Trail until it was too late.
South End’s Rail Trail was pretty much an accident.
Even though it’s hard to believe today, the Rail Trail was not part of the original plan for the light rail, which opened in 2007.
The asphalt that’s now the trail was laid with much different use in mind — access for emergency vehicles. These paths were put in for the Charlotte trolley two decades ago, and then expanded for the light rail train.
The idea for a shared path and linear park evolved much later. The first inklings came in 2011, when the City Council approved its 2020 Center City Vision Plan. That started a conversation about parks and trails through the heart of the city.
A year later, Center City Partners launched a working group to come up with a vision for such a trail along the light rail, and in 2013 LandDesign was hired to create a more concrete plan.
This plan, released in late 2015, finally established the Rail Trail as we know it today.
The Blue Line Extension’s route makes it nearly impossible to run a path alongside it.
By then, it was too late to incorporate a Rail Trail as a must-have in the light rail’s extension, which takes the train from Uptown all the way up to University City.
The route had been chosen in 2006, and the project broke ground in 2013.
This route is not conducive to a trail. At the start, it uses land leased from the privately held North Carolina Railroad Company.
Joe Frey, the Cross-Charlotte Trail implementation manager, said the city asked for permission to create a trail alongside this stretch while negotiating this lease in 2013, but was turned down.
Then, when the Blue Line diverges, it begins running in the median of North Tryon Street. That makes a trail difficult.
Of course, some bike and pedestrian advocates see these as excuses more than reasons.
These hurdles perhaps could have been overcome or worked around early in the planning process, before engineering and land acqusition locked the city into the route.
“I’d like to think that if we were planning the Blue Line today, they’d incorporate a trail,” said Shannon Binns, executive director of Sustain Charlotte. “Ten years ago, no one was thinking about it.”
Charlotte is now working hard to retrofit its streets.
The city’s mindset has changed dramatically over the past few years. Creating facilities for cyclists and walkers is now much more frequently discussed.
When the Charlotte Area Transit System now briefs the City Council on future transit lines in the works, shared-use trails are often mentioned.
Charlotte is now working to retrofit past projects to include bike and pedestrian trails.
One of the biggest fixes in the works is a proposed bridge that will link the Rail Trail in South End over I-277.
Alongside this 12th Street end to the Rail Trail, the city is working to cobble together connections. Today, there is a painted bike path that brings people from the Rail Trail to North Brevard Street.
This currently dead-ends into a construction zone. But apartment projects along Parkwood Avenue near the Parkwood Station will create more bike and pedestrian lines in this area.
The goal is to ultimately connect this area to the Cross Charlotte Trail that will one day in the far future extend from Cabarrus County to Pineville. As development continues along the light rail line, the city says it is focused on extending the path.