Politics & Government

‘We have to get into Ballantyne.’ What will second decade mean for light rail?

Ten years ago, the Lynx Blue Line opened after a bruising political fight over its future.

The train was delayed and over budget. Transit opponents had launched a repeal effort of the half-cent sales tax that provides the Charlotte Area Transit System with most of its funding.

Though the repeal effort failed three weeks before the Lynx opened, no one was quite sure how the public would receive the city’s first light-rail line.

Then opening day came. On Saturday, Nov. 24, 2007, the Charlotte Area Transit System allowed anyone to ride the train for free.

The station platforms were packed. The trains were jammed like a New York City subway.

“I knew we would have some people, I never expected us to have what we had – the estimate was somewhere around 100,000 people,” said Ron Tober, who led CATS at the time and is now a transit consultant. “Frankly, when I was down there, and riding the trains, and seeing people, it brought tears to my eyes. It was not easy trying to get this thing built, with the political climate that existed then.”

Tober added: “We were accused of building a boondoggle that no one would ride. All those doomsayers or naysayers have been quiet.”

One of those naysayers was David Hartgen, a retired UNC Charlotte professor who is now a transportation consultant.

Hartgen said he still has doubts about whether the light-rail line is worth it, pointing to little or no ridership growth since the Lynx opened.

“I don’t see much to change my original assessment,” he said.

In four months, CATS is scheduled for another milestone: The opening of the $1.1 billion Lynx Blue Line 9.3-mile extension to University City.

When the extension opens, Charlotte will have just under 19 miles of light rail.

Then Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, left, smiles skyward in front of a Lynx light rail train with Ron Tober, then-chief executive of the Charlotte Area Transit System, at the controls during a dedication ceremony in 2007. DAVID T. FOSTER III Staff Photographer

What will the next decade bring?

CATS chief executive John Lewis wants to pursue an ambitious plan to build three new rail lines at once – light rail to Matthews; light rail to the airport; and some sort of rail to Lake Norman. That will cost as much as $7 billion and would require some type of tax increase, possibly a new transit sales tax.

Meanwhile, the city of Charlotte – not CATS – is planning to expand the streetcar.

Hartgen said he thinks CATS will need at least a new full penny sales tax to build all three new transit lines. That would increase the Mecklenburg sales tax to 8.25 percent. (It would be 9.25 percent on restaurant and bar tabs.)

Getting a new sales tax would require approval from the Republican-controlled General Assembly, which could be a tough sell.

There are no firm plans to extend the existing Blue Line during the first round of expansion. But Lewis said CATS could like to lengthen the line at some point, possibly in 10 years.

The extension was originally supposed to reach I-485 in northeast Charlotte, but it’s stopping at UNC Charlotte. Reaching I-485 by building another two miles of rail would be a likely goal of the transit system.

In the south, transit planners have long debated whether the Lynx should continue toward South Carolina or whether it should turn to the southeast and head for Ballantyne.

Lewis said he’s in favor of Ballantyne.

“We have to figure out how to get into Ballantyne,” Lewis said. “That area is growing so quickly. I’m not sure we can get there in the next round (of expansion), but I think we have to go to Ballantyne.”

When will three-car trains come?

When the Lynx Blue Line was being planned earlier last decade, the original design called for station platforms to be long enough to handle three-car trains. But budget cutbacks forced CATS to make the station platforms shorter, capable of handling only two-car trains.

In the last several years, CATS has spent $17 million lengthening the platforms at four stations – Seventh Street, Stonewall, Woodlawn and I-485/South Boulevard. But there are still 11 stations whose platforms need to be lengthened so the transit system can have three-car trains running along the entire line. CATS has said that might not happen until 2024.

Each Siemens light-rail vehicle has a capacity of 240 people.

In the meantime, CATS said it will operate more trains during rush hour once the Lynx extension opens in March. Today, trains run every 10 minutes during rush hour. The transit system plans to increase that frequency to every 7.5 minutes.

CATS also plans to replace all ticket-vending machines in the first quarter of 2018. The transit system will spend $3.4 million for 39 new machines.

Earlier this year, CATS unveiled a cellphone app that allows people to buy Lynx tickets. Before the end of the year, CATS said passengers will be able to buy monthly passes on their phones.

Will ridership grow?

CATS projected the Lynx would carry 9,100 passenger trips on an average weekday its first year. It quickly exceeded that estimate, and by the summer of 2008 – when the local economy was strong and gas prices were high – the Lynx was flirting with 18,000 passenger trips per weekday.

But ridership fell during the recession and has never fully reached that 2008 peak. In the last six months, the Lynx has averaged 15,655 passenger trips during weekdays.

Ridership has been flat even though South End has boomed with new construction. CATS said 10,626 new residential units have been built along the line, many within a five-minute walk to a train station.

But what’s more concerning is that the Lynx has not translated into an overall increase in people using transit.

Bus ridership has been falling for several years. And for the fiscal year that ended in June, local bus ridership was down 7.1 percent compared with the previous fiscal year. The decline comes even as the local economy is strong. Express bus service, which targets uptown commuters, is also down.

Lewis said he believes Charlotte’s gentrification is part of the problem. The transit system’s core customer is low-income, often without a car. As those people move farther away from uptown, it’s harder for CATS to serve them.

“As people are being priced out, they have moved farther and farther out,” he said. “Those are places we don’t serve effectively.”

Hartgen, the transportation consultant, said he believes part of that is true. But he thinks the city overall is wealthier, giving people more options such as ride-sharing services or buying their own car. Bus ridership has been falling in most cities.

“We are seeing this everywhere,” he said.

What’s next for development?

CATS and transit boosters predicted the light-rail line would spur so-called transit-oriented development. In the last 10 years, that’s happened faster than almost anyone would have realized.

The entire South End – from the New Bern station to uptown – has been transformed, with thousands of new apartments, plus restaurants, grocery stores and retail.

Lewis said he believes new development will eventually move south and cluster around stations such as Woodlawn and Tyvola. At those stations, and others along the line, CATS has surface parking lots that are under-used.

Lewis said he would be willing to sell under-used surface lots if a developer wanted to build a parking deck along with apartments.

“We are already looking towards that and taking with city real estate folks,” Lewis said. “Are there some deals out there to better utilize that real estate?”

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs