The Lynx Blue Line is already nearing its 2025 ridership goal. The Charlotte Area Transit System is struggling to handle unexpected crowds, and recently bought four new train cars to increase capacity.
But one skeptic of Charlotte's mass transit plans still isn't convinced.
David Hartgen, a former UNCC transportation professor and an opponent last year of the transit sales tax, said light rail isn't generating enough benefits to justify the high cost to build and operate it.
Hartgen released a study Monday that says Charlotte is only getting 68 cents in benefits for every $1 the train costs. When only Charlotte costs are analyzed – the state and federal government paid for 75 percent of the construction costs – the train performs better, with $1.20 in return for every $1 spent.
Hartgen said most highway projects generate between $1.50 and $2 in benefits for every dollar spent.
He said he's concerned that Lynx ridership may suffer if gas prices drop.
“I would say they have been lucky, but I'm afraid their luck is about to run out,” Hartgen said. “They opened just as the gas spiral took off.”
CATS projected the Lynx would average 9,100 weekday trips in its first year. So far, CATS is well above that estimate, with more than 16,000 trips in July and August.
The long-term goal is 18,100 trips by 2015.
CATS said it is reviewing the report and doesn't yet have a comment.
Hargten's study, published by the John Locke Foundation, analyzed whether the Lynx was reducing traffic and pollution and whether it was increasing property values.
Hartgen said he believes a significant amount of LYNX riders have switched from buses. He also said environmental benefits have been negligible, and he estimates the train has reduced rush-hour traffic in the South Boulevard corridor by 4 percent.
Hartgen's report did say there are benefits to the Lynx that he wasn't able to quantify, such as helping Charlotte argue it has “world class status” and creating new land-use patterns.
Hartgen's study revisits many of the issues that consumed Charlotte last fall, when the transit tax was debated.
Because the report was written less than a year after the Lynx opened, the data used is still changing quickly.
Hartgen noted that Lynx ridership on Saturday and Sunday has declined since the spring but that weekend traffic increased significantly in August. Saturday ridership averaged 15,838 trips in August, up from 10,994 in July.
The study also found that the seven park-and-ride lots have 2,050 cars. The Observer has counted nearly 2,400 cars in the lots in late August.