The Charlotte Area Transit System is considering ending the free uptown Gold Rush shuttle in August – three years earlier than planned – before a streetcar extension is ready to take its place.
CATS said construction on Trade Street for the streetcar will disrupt traffic, making it difficult for the free shuttle to operate. But the Gold Rush is one of the transit system’s most popular routes, and carried as much as 2 percent of the transit system’s entire ridership in 2016. It runs from Johnson C. Smith University to the uptown transportation center.
The city is building a $150 million streetcar extension, which will follow the same route as the Gold Rush when it opens in 2020.
Pernice Mendez uses the Gold Rush to save money by parking near Rozzelles Ferry Road and then taking the shuttle to her office at the Arts & Science Council. CATS told her she can take local bus No. 7, which covers a similar route, though she would either have to buy a weekly or monthly pass or pay $2.20 each way.
“I’d rather keep my money,” she said during a community meeting Tuesday about the proposed Gold Rush closing.
Mendez said the closure will impact people on the west side.
“There are a lot of people around here who can’t pay for the bus,” she said. “It seems like (closures) are always hitting our people the hardest.”
In the summer of 2015, CATS opened the first phase of the Gold Line streetcar, from Spectrum Center to Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center in Elizabeth. The transit system recently started construction on the second phase of the streetcar, which will extend today’s 1.5-mile in both directions. When the second phase is finished, the streetcar will be 4 miles.
The streetcar’s second phase, which is scheduled to open in 2020, will cover nearly the exact same route as the Gold Rush shuttle. CATS had always planned to end the Gold Rush shuttle then, since the shuttle and the streetcar would cover the same route.
CATS chief executive John Lewis said the Gold Rush is designed to get people around uptown quickly, but he said “the construction will make it difficult to achieve that goal.”
CATS spends just under $620,000 a year to operate the Gold Rush, though it receives $100,000 in subsidies from organizations like Johnson C. Smith University. Because the shuttle is free, CATS won’t lose any revenue by ending the service.
At Tuesday’s meeting, other Gold Rush riders were upset about the plan. Some said it was short-sighted.
“They should make the service less frequent if their urban planners can’t figure out a different route (to avoid construction),” said Taryn Laughlin, who takes the shuttle daily from her home in Biddleville.
Other riders told the transit system that ending the shuttle would hurt low-income residents. CATS officials responded by saying that the Gold Rush has a large number of middle-income and high-income riders.
Even before CATS proposed ending the Gold Rush, ridership on both the streetcar and the Gold Rush was declining.
The transit system calculates ridership on a fiscal year basis, from July to June.
The transit system’s March ridership report, which covers the first nine months of the fiscal year, showed that Gold Rush ridership was down 23 percent compared to the same period a year earlier. But the Gold Rush had still carried 180,000 passengers during that time period.
The Gold Line streetcar also saw ridership decline. Its ridership was 286,000 people for the first nine months of the fiscal year, down 8 percent compared with the same period a year earlier. The streetcar has longer operating hours, however.
For riders, one problem with the streetcar and the Gold Rush shuttle is that it’s no longer possible to ride for free from the university to the hospital. When passengers arrive at the arena, they have to get off the Gold Rush shuttle bus and walk to the streetcar stop.
Lewis said that made the Gold Rush “lose its luster.”
CATS previously had a second Gold Rush shuttle that operated on Tryon Street. But after funding partners such as Bank of America stopped subsidizing the shuttle, CATS ended service in 2009.