The $1.1 billion light-rail extension will open for passengers on Friday, March 16 – on the same day the Spectrum Center hosts the NCAA basketball tournament, the Charlotte Area Transit System announced Monday night.
The Blue Line Extension will add 9.3 miles and 11 stations, from uptown to UNC Charlotte. The entire Blue Line will allow passengers to take a roughly 45-minute ride from Interstate 485 in south Charlotte to the university.
Charlotte will host the first and second rounds of the men’s basketball tournament. Those games will be played March 16 and Sunday, March 18, and people staying in hotels in University City can have easy access to the arena.
“This is hot off the presses,” CATS chief executive John Lewis told City Council Monday.
CATS hoped to open the extension in August. But the project was delayed, and CATS announced the new opening date of March in early 2018. The end of March is the transit system’s deadline with the federal government, which paid for half of the project’s construction costs.
Lewis said the project is still under budget.
CATS said the opening will lead to other changes in the overall transit system. CATS will change some bus routes so that they connect with new light-rail stations.
And a new program called “Envision My Ride” will likely bring more changes to the bus system, as CATS plans to start more crosstown routes instead of having almost all buses feed into uptown. Envision My Ride will be rolled out later this year.
The light-rail line today operates every 10 minutes during rush hour on weekdays and every 15 minutes during off-peak times. After the extension opens, Lewis said CATS will operate trains every 7.5 minutes during rush hour.
Starting Jan. 21, CATS will begin operating trains on the extension as though it were on a regular schedule, at both and day and night. Trains will stop at stations and even pause and wait for passengers, to simulate what the transit system calls “dwell time.”
After nearly two months of that testing, the train will open for passengers. CATS will hold some sort of celebration when the extension opens, though those events haven’t been scheduled yet.