Danny Rogers shares rewards, challenges of building Charlotte’s light rail

Danny Rogers, Blue Line Extension project director, surveys light rail construction progress from atop the Matheson Avenue bridge in NoDa Friday, August 28, 2014.
Danny Rogers, Blue Line Extension project director, surveys light rail construction progress from atop the Matheson Avenue bridge in NoDa Friday, August 28, 2014. tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com

Imagine yourself at the head of a project that will create more than 9 miles of light-rail service with the potential to transform neighborhoods across northeast Charlotte.

That’s 11 stations and tracks that will be nuzzled into “live” railroad corridors as trains whistle through. There’s also the rebuilding of a big chunk of busy North Tryon Street, which is flanked on both sides by scores of taxpayer businesses. The tracks will blaze right through the middle of this busy thoroughfare.

In the end, the Lynx Blue Line extension will be expected to provide not just transportation but also attract millions if not billions in new transit-friendly development to the corridor.

But don’t worry if you’re not up to the task. Danny Rogers is.

Yet Charlotte Area Transit System’s Blue Line Extension project director concedes the job is a daunting one.

“Whenever we went out in public, we never had people ask ‘Why are you building this?’” Rogers said. “They were asking, ‘Why is it taking so long?’”

Launched in 2007, the Blue Line’s 9.6-mile, 15-station first leg, along the South Boulevard corridor, attracts more than 16,000 average daily riders, well above the 9,100 projected. The south line also has sparked an apartment boom along its tracks, and new private investments along the corridor are expected to reach $1.45 billion from 2005-2015, according to CATS.

But there’s plenty of territory outside of the south line’s reach. Neighborhoods to the north are eager to connect, and they’d like to reap the same types of benefits.

The $1.16 billion Blue Line extension will extend the rail service from Ninth Street uptown north to UNC Charlotte, mostly along North Tryon Street.

The opening of the north line is expected in 2017. Together, the north and south lines each are expected to carry more than 24,000 daily weekday riders by 2035. No one is interested in talking about delays, Rogers said. Certainly not business owners in the construction zone.

“Our concern is to minimize the disruption that we’re having on the corridor and to get this project open and people to be able to start realizing the benefits of it,” Rogers said.

Rogers says building the north line is challenging because of the terrain, the design and the businesses in place.

Near uptown, where the north line will meet with the south line, crews will move some of the North Carolina Railroad /Norfolk Southern tracks to make room for light-rail tracks. In some places, both sets must pass under bridges together.

North of North Davidson Street, where crews are renovating a portion of North Tryon Street, a state road, the design includes new sidewalks, curbs and gutters, and bike lanes along the route. These are some of the features that will make North Tryon better equipped for pedestrians and cyclists. Those features also can make a corridor attractive to developers.

Business owners are excited about the opportunities that light rail will bring, but construction is messy. Dust and dirt drift onto sidewalks and buildings, said Darlene Heater, executive director of University City Partners.

“What has been most challenging is maintaining access to our hospital,” Heater said, referring to CMC-University. “Tryon Street is one of the entrances to the emergency room.”

Creating the north line involves a battalion that includes city staff, state roadway experts, transit personnel, construction managers, consultants and others. More than 100 people are scattered on job sites on a given day.

Rogers, 51, is responsible for getting the trains on track on budget and on schedule. He worked for the N.C. Department of Transportation before joining the city’s Planning Department in 2001 and coming to CATS in 2004. Preliminary work on the north line started in 2007. Now he’s using his earlier experience in highways and planning to create a transformative project for Charlotte.

“I feel very confident that we will be able to finish the project under budget,” he said. “I want to make sure that we finish it on schedule. That’s going to be the bigger challenge.”

Rogers says he’s been successful at assembling a strong team capable of tackling an ambitious project.

“He expects you to know what you need to do,” said John Mrzygod, an engineer with the city’s department of Engineering and Property Management, is one of the construction managers on Rogers’ team. “If you’re doing it, great. When things need to change, he’ll insert himself when he needs to.”

Rogers cites relocation of utilities as one of the project’s toughest hurdles so far. To widen North Tryon, utilities are moved at the owners’ expense. Most were unenthusiastic about doing so, and there were many owners to contend with.

“As many (utilities) as you saw above ground, there were that many or more below ground,” Rogers said.

One of the places where relocation of utilities has been especially challenging, Rogers said, is at Eastway Bridge, which has been blocked to traffic for about 15 months – much longer than planned. The bridge is scheduled to reopen in early September, but a restaurant owner in the area said business has dropped at least 25 percent while the bridge has been blocked.

“That is probably is the thing that has bothered me the most,” Rogers said. “It’s been much more challenging than I had hoped.”

With all of those people on the job, Rogers says one of the things he’d like to have is even more manpower, to cut the long hours that have been necessary to stay on schedule.

“We’re asking them to do a lot, and they are,” he said. “They deserve the recognition for doing that. They work long days all the time.”

Karen Sullivan: 704-358-5532, @Sullivan_kms

Danny Rogers

Hometown: Charlotte

Occupation: CATS Blue Line Extension project director

Age: 51

Education: Bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering, N.C. State University.

Family: Wife, Maria, son, 23, and a daughter at UNC-Chapel Hill.