Politics & Government

CATS hoped to ease crowds on light rail trains. Those plans will wait eight years.

The Charlotte Area Transit System told the federal government it’s withdrawing from a plan to expand the light-rail line so it can handle three-car trains.
The Charlotte Area Transit System told the federal government it’s withdrawing from a plan to expand the light-rail line so it can handle three-car trains. sharrison@charlotteobserver.com

At rush hour and for Carolina Panthers games, passengers pack into Lynx Blue Line trains shoulder to shoulder.

The Charlotte Area Transit System had hoped to soon operate three-car trains to relieve crowding, but a lack of funding has caused the transit system to shelve those plans, likely for eight years, according to a letter sent to the Federal Transit Administration.

The Lynx Blue Line extension from uptown to UNC Charlotte is being built with train platforms long enough to handle three-car trains.

The existing light-rail line, however, was built a decade ago with stations long enough to handle only two-car trains.

Three years ago, CATS started the process to lengthen the old stations so they could handle longer trains.

The city spent roughly $17 million lengthening four stations – Seventh Street, Stonewall, Woodlawn and I-485/South Boulevard. That left 11 station platforms that needed to be lengthened.

CATS planned to lengthen the stations a few at a time so it could operate three-car trains soon after the extension opens.

But in a Jan. 9 letter to the federal government, CATS chief executive John Lewis said “after a thoughtful review” with its financial consultant, Ernst and Young, it would have to withdraw from the federal program that helped pay for the station extensions.

Lewis said the decision to withdraw “has not come easily.”

“It is our intention to continue design work for the remaining eleven stations, as funding allows, with the goal of achieving a complete 3-car capacity by 2025,” he wrote.

Lynx passenger Geoff Nulty, who commutes uptown from the Sharon Road West station, was frustrated by the news.

“That’s unacceptable,” he said. “People are going to pay more to park (and not ride the train). When the doors open, sometimes you can’t get in the train.”

In an interview Friday, Lewis said it was more important to focus on plans to build new rail lines to the airport, Matthews and Lake Norman. That could cost between $5 billion and $7 billion, Lewis has told City Council.

“This was more of a strategic decision,” he said. “Eventually we need to expand them to accommodate three-car trains, but we don’t have the ridership today to necessitate it.”

Lynx cars are crowded for Panthers games and other special events. They are also crowded at rush hour.

But overall, ridership on the train has been stable for more than five years, at about 15,000 weekday trips. When the train opened in 2007, the first-year ridership projection was 9,700 daily weekday trips.

“On a day-to-day basis we aren’t there yet,” Lewis said. “We just aren’t there yet.”

CATS told the City Council about the delay in late February, but it didn’t mention its plans to postpone having three-car trains. The Observer discovered the news from a public records request.

Lynx passenger Keisha Riley wasn’t fazed by not having three-car trains. She said she usually takes the train during off-peak times when it’s not crowded.

“I have taken it after concerts and it’s crowded,” she said. “But I’m from up north. I’m used to that.”

The original plan for the Lynx line was for longer platforms to operate three-car trains. But when the project was being designed more than a decade ago, the transit system shortened the platforms to save money.

Now, more than a decade later, that decision has proven difficult to undo.

The Lynx Blue Line Extension to UNC Charlotte won’t open in August 2017 as planned and might not open until next March, the Charlotte Area Transit System said Monday night.

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs