There are three important numbers involved in the Lynx extension announced Tuesday. You already know two of them: 9 miles and a billion dollars.
No. 3 is 156 years.
That’s how long it has been since trains started rolling the entire length of the N.C. Railroad, the 19th-century line that stretched from Charlotte to Goldsboro and now connects with the state port in Morehead City. It was a key reason this city grew from a hayseed trading post to a national financial center.
It put us in the game and keeps us in the game. About 60 freight trains use it every day now, and a new rail yard at the airport should increase the cargo opportunities that make us a transportation hub.
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It cost millions in the day to build the trans-state line and it has paid for itself over and over in the commerce it brought. It has lasted a century and a half, which isn’t bad for something that in the beginning many people thought would be an expensive boondoggle.
That line mainly hauls freight and the Lynx carries people. They have more in common, though, than you might think.
Until the recession clobbered us, Charlotte was in a frenzied era of growth. Developers were building on the edges as quick as bulldozers could scrape the clay. Roads couldn’t keep up with the demand (and still can’t).
When the first Lynx line opened in 2007 it instantly exceeded ridership expectations. It tied the center city to the southern suburbs, chopped time and expense for commuters and spurred a land-rush of infill development on the South End.
It wasn’t cheap, but it began resculpting the landscape. Quick and reliable transportation is the lifeblood of modern cities and Lynx can be expected to do what commuter rail has done elsewhere – attract people and business to its arteries.
With the next leg, Lynx will tie UNC Charlotte and burgeoning University City with uptown. It will bring a renaissance to sketchy neighborhoods to the north. It will create a spine of easy transport whose impact should be felt for decades in tangible benefits.
Those aghast at the price tag aren’t crazy. It’s a huge sum to spend at a time when the region is still on the financial ropes.
No, it won’t pay for itself in ticket sales. Transportation rarely does.
I-77 doesn’t pay for itself either. And the only passenger rail I know that shows a profit is named Tweetsie.
You have to take the long view, the 156-year view, to see a benefit. Imagine New York without the subway or Washington without the Metro. Both cities would quit working.
Like it or not, Lynx is the path to our future. Most of all, it’s good to be a town that’s on the move once again.