In '09, CATS plans to boost airport service

As Charlotte has expanded its transit system, one destination has been underserved: the airport.

The Charlotte Area Transit System doesn't plan to serve Charlotte/Douglas International with a train for at least 20 years, but is rolling out faster, more frequent bus service next summer.

The “Airport Sprinter” will run every 20 minutes from uptown to the main terminal, replacing the current Route 5 bus that runs every 30 minutes during peak times.

CATS plans to brand the new airport bus with its own green color scheme and increased marketing. Many of the stops along Wilkinson Boulevard will be improved, with benches, schedules and possibly shelters.

The goal is to make the bus an attractive option for airline passengers, especially for people coming to Charlotte for business. Most of the airport passengers on the airport route today are Charlotte/Douglas employees.

“If you are coming from Cleveland, we will get you to uptown faster,” said CATS chief executive Keith Parker. “The schedule will be simplified. It will be much less intimidating.”

Parker said it's the biggest change to the bus system since the free Gold Rush uptown shuttle was introduced seven years ago.

Parker is confident CATS can attract airline passengers, in part because of its success with light rail and express buses.

“Everything we have put out there, people are riding,” said Parker, who unveiled the sprinter's new green color scheme Wednesday.

Cities such as Atlanta and Washington, D.C., have rail rapid transit that serves their airports.

Charlotte's long-range transit plan calls for a streetcar to run along Wilkinson Boulevard and serve the airport by 2034, though it's possible it could be sooner. The city is studying the economic benefits of starting construction early next decade.

CATS hasn't made the airport a priority for rail service for several reasons. One is that there isn't a significant amount of congestion on Wilkinson Boulevard, and the federal government decides whether to fund rail transit projects in part based on how much time a train would save passengers. CATS has worried that a train to the airport wouldn't be supported by the Federal Transit Administration.

Route 5 buses now run every 30 minutes during peak times and every hour in off-peak times. The trip from uptown to the airport's baggage level takes 25 to 28 minutes.

The Sprinter will run every 20 minutes until around 8 p.m. – the schedule hasn't been finalized – and CATS expects the trip will be three to four minutes faster because there will be fewer stops.

The new airport route will use five new hybrid buses that CATS says will get 50 percent better gas mileage than its regular fleet. The hybrids will get about 6 miles per gallon, compared to today's 4 mpg.

CATS is planning four stops uptown: the Charlotte Transportation Center; Trade and Tryon; Graham and Trade; and near Johnson & Wales University.

“We think we have a great ability to capture business travelers,” said Jason Lawrence, a CATS transportation planner.

CATS is still determining how to outfit airport buses to accommodate passengers with luggage. Lawrence said it's likely the buses will have wider aisles. CATS is studying how it can install luggage racks without removing too many seats.

CATS is planning to invest $1.3 million for station improvements. Each of the hybrid buses costs $530,000 – about 50 percent more than for a “clean diesel” bus.

The Airport Sprinter is part of an “enhanced bus” program that could be expanded to other routes.