Politics & Government

UNC Charlotte students can ride light rail for almost nothing. Will they pack trains?

Here is video of the light-rail extension, which is opening in March

CATS said it hasn’t yet started its own testing on the Lynx Blue Line Extension, but the transit system said the $1.1 billion light-rail extension will open in March.
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CATS said it hasn’t yet started its own testing on the Lynx Blue Line Extension, but the transit system said the $1.1 billion light-rail extension will open in March.

When the Lynx Blue Line extension opens in March, UNC Charlotte students will have unlimited rides for $25 a semester, an agreement with CATS that could pack trains and will give the transit system a windfall of $1.1 million.

University students will have a mandatory $25 fee included in their bill each semester. In return, they have unlimited rides on light rail or Charlotte Area Transit System buses.

For others, the cost of a regular monthly pass that offers unlimited bus and train rides is $88 – or $440 to cover a five-month semester.

For CATS, the deal with UNCC is likely a boon financially.

Last year, CATS sold $27,000 worth of discounted passes to UNCC students and faculty. But with 23,400 undergraduates now paying for the pass – whether they use it or not – CATS will get about $1.17 million in revenue.

CATS brings in about $27 million each year in ticket revenue from the light rail and buses.

“We think it’s a great deal for everyone,” said Olaf Kinard, director of marketing/communications and information technology for CATS. “It’s like a broken drum – you can’t beat it. We get $1 million and increased ridership. That’s a good deal for us.”

But it’s unclear whether the 9.3-mile extension will be flooded with students. Will students take the train that they have already paid for – or will they use ride-sharing applications like Uber?

“I’m definitely going to be using it,” said UNC Charlotte sophomore Andrew Corn. “If you want to go uptown you don’t have to worry about an Uber. I think the majority of campus is excited.”

Corn lives in an off-campus apartment, but said he’ll make a 10-minute walk to the campus train station.

Sophomore Andrew Price also lives off campus, and doesn’t expect to use the light rail more than a few times a semester. He doesn’t mind paying the mandatory $25 fee each semester.

“It’s good for everyone,” he said. “It opens up opportunity. There are so many good-paying jobs uptown.”

UNCC’s associate director of communications, Buffie Stephens, said the university expects about 15 to 20 percent of students to use light rail.

She said the university made the transit fee mandatory to “spread (the cost) across the student community.” She said it’s no different than fees students pay for Niner Transit, the student union, athletics and the student health center.

CATS expects the extension to add 18,000 weekday trips to the Lynx line. The existing 9.7-mile line carries about 15,000 passenger trips each weekday.

Charlotte modeled its university transit pass after other cities such as Dallas, Denver and Salt Lake City.

In Denver, the CollegePass program gave the transit system $13.9 million in 2017. That’s nearly 10 percent of Denver’s total fare revenue of $141.2 million.

While CATS is giving UNCC students inexpensive transit, it has reduced service for Johnson C. Smith, a historically black university near uptown.

Johnson C. Smith used to be served by the Gold Rush shuttle, a free bus that went from the university to Elizabeth. But CATS stopped running the shuttle last year, in part because construction for the streetcar line would have made it difficult to operate.

The streetcar will run along the same route when it opens in 2020. But instead of being free, riders will have to buy a ticket, which is $2.20.

Kinard said CATS would consider a similar discounted deal with Johnson C. Smith.

“We’re open to having those discussions,” he said. “It doesn’t mean it will be the same as UNC Charlotte. We have to look at the economics of it. Anytime we can get a larger group to pay, we can offer those types of discounts.”

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs