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Charlotte Douglas airport, light rail prepare for DNC influx

By Ely Portillo and Claire McNeill
elyportillo@charlotteobserver.com

Three hundred extra taxis and 1,000 additional rental cars at the airport, beefed-up numbers of bag-check agents, and greeters helping shepherd new riders onto the city’s light rail – officials are preparing for the massive influx that will accompany the Democratic National Convention.

Keeping traffic and people moving across the city – and especially at chokepoints such as the airport and light rail – will be crucial as some of the country’s most powerful people flood into Charlotte.

“The eyes of the world will be on us,” aviation director Jerry Orr said. “If you do it right, there won’t be anything said. If you mess up, all eyes will be on you.”

The official convention runs Sept. 4 to Sept. 6, with a large kick-off event uptown open to the public on Monday, Sept. 3.

Charlotte’s Lynx Light Rail system will close part of its uptown line to the general public for three days, shuttling them around the city on buses north of the Stonewall Street station. Hours will remain standard (from about 5:30 a.m. to 1:30 a.m.) unless there is a need to extend them. Officials said the system is flexible should they need to change its hours.

Charlotte Douglas International Airport is expecting a weekend rush of visitors before and immediately after the convention, and will have an altered traffic pattern at peak hours to ease congestion.

Charlotte Douglas International Airport

Airport officials expect the heaviest influx of visitors on Saturday, Sept. 2, and Sunday, Sept. 3, the weekend before the convention. The weekend of Labor Day is a busy travel time anyway, so officials are gearing up for major convention.

“For my own, selfish reasons I wish they’d picked a different weekend,” said aviation director Jerry Orr. “At least it’s not Christmas, or Thanksgiving.”

The airport will have additional staff and DNC volunteers on hand to direct those arriving for the convention. They plan to put up additional signs throughout the terminal, directing people to crucial areas.

There will be 400 taxis on hand, waiting to ferry convention-goers to uptown. That’s four times the usual number of taxis. Orr said that’s the same number Denver’s airport used when that city hosted the DNC in 2008.

Denver’s airport is about 25 miles from the city’s downtown, so with Charlotte-Douglas only about seven miles from uptown, Orr said he believes there will be enough taxis.

The airport rental car agencies are beefing up too, and plan to have 1,000 additional cars ready for the week of the DNC. Officers will also be helping to direct traffic farther out along the approach roads, not just near the terminal, to keep things moving.

To help separate convention arrivals from normal airport passengers, Orr said the airport will put in an alternate traffic pattern during the busiest times. People coming to the city who will take their private cars from the airport will leave through the airport’s lower level, while those taking commercial transportation will be directed upstairs.

“There’s going to be a ton of buses, a ton of limos, motorcoaches,” Orr said.

One aspect Orr said he couldn’t discuss is the heightened level of security at the airport, and whether that will interfere with operations. “If I knew that, I couldn’t tell you,” said Orr. But one thing that’s certain to interfere with air traffic, at least briefly, is the arrival and departure of the President in Air Force One. Orr said he doesn’t know when those flights will take place, but they typically mandate shutting about half of the airport’s airspace to other planes, meaning delays for arrivals and departures.

It’s also unclear how many private jets will be arriving at Charlotte Douglas’ Wilson Air Center during the convention. “Just to be on the safe side, we’re assuming they all come,” Orr said, but many are likely to arrive at regional airports in Concord, Monroe and elsewhere. Some of those high-profile arriving passengers will likely have motorcades escorting them to the city, which could disrupt traffic.

Orr said the airport expects most of the convention-goers to leave Charlotte on Friday, following Obama’s Thursday night speech. The airport usually has about 20,000 local passengers per day (the majority of the airport’s 100,000 passengers are connecting traffic, and don’t leave the terminal), and the DNC will push that number much higher.

To accommodate the rush, Charlotte Douglas is coordinating with the airlines to boost staff at their ticketing counters. That’ll make it easier to check bags quickly, Orr said.

His advice for passengers flying that week is similar to the airport’s tips for travel on any busy holiday weekend: Come early, leave extra time, print your boarding passes beforehand, make sure your carry-on luggage doesn’t have any forbidden items, and watch out for signs about changed traffic patterns and such. “Believe the signs, trust the signs, follow the signs,” Orr said.

Lynx Light Rail

On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of the convention, the Lynx Blue Line will stop running at the Stonewall Street station, by the Westin Hotel. Riders headed uptown may transfer to buses with a valid Lynx ticket.

Olaf Kinard, director of marketing and communications for the Charlotte Area Transit System, said the light rail won’t otherwise change its normal operations unless it sees a need.

“We will run a normal schedule and be prepared to interject more trains and more frequent trips as we see fit, and that’s pretty much how we plan to operate all week,” he said, which he said is the same way CATS handles special events like the Speed Street race festival or Panthers games that go into overtime.

Additional ticket-sellers and ambassadors to help first-time customers will be at different stations. On Thursday, train routes will be back to normal, but ambassadors will remain to help the public. Kinard said CATS will have a couple trains run north of Stonewall for the delegates, transporting them to and from the arena and convention center.

But Kinard said CATS isn’t anticipating any significant ridership changes.

“We’re hearing that unless businesses have people telecommute, people will be riding to work,” he said. “And it’s really only two days that the normal work force will be coming to the uptown area.”

Information about how to ride the Lynx light rail is on its website, he said, and CATS will hold a video webinar next week on how to ride.

Portillo: 704-358-5041 On Twitter @ESPortillo
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