Politics & Government

After a decade of planning, Charlotte’s light-rail extension finally opens

Passengers cheered and clapped as Charlotte’s light-rail extension left the UNC Charlotte station at 10 a.m. Friday morning, opening the Lynx Blue line after four years of construction.

The first train headed south after a brief ceremony. Passengers cheered again as the train passed through a 1000-foot tunnel to enter North Tryon Street. Fifty-seven minutes later, it arrived at the I-485/South Boulevard station at the other end of the city.

Keith Jung, who works in IT at UNC Charlotte’s biology department, arrived at 9 a.m. to find 200 people already waiting for the extension to open. Jung had a white T-shirt that said “First to Ride.” In all, there were roughly 1,000 people waiting at the UNC Charlotte station for a chance to ride the train. Many used their cellphones to film their first ride.

“This is going to make it so easy to get around,” Jung said. “I never doubted they would build it.”

Jung said he hopes the rail line will better connect the university to the rest of the city.

“Hopefully this will give the university some respect,” he said. “People in Charlotte don’t think of UNC Charlotte as their university.”

blueline1
A crowd of about 500 people waited at the UNC Charlotte station Friday for the first ride on the the Lynx Blue Line extension. Steve Harrison sharrison@charlotteobserver.com

The line opened in time for basketball fans to use it for first-round NCAA Tournament games that will be played Friday at the Spectrum Center uptown.

The Blue Line will now have 26 stations and 11 park-and-ride lots. The entire line is now 18.9 miles long.

In 2007, Charlotte opened the city’s first light-rail line, from I-485 to uptown. On opening day, thousands of people crammed each station, waiting for a chance to ride.

Friday’s opening crowd for the extension was much smaller. Though the UNC Charlotte station was jammed, other stations along the extension were mostly quiet, and train cars heading north – from uptown to the university – weren’t crowded.

But people associated with the university were passionate about the train finally reaching them.

“This will be so great for students,” said UNCC junior Lauren Cook, who waited an hour to ride the Lynx. “We can go uptown to the Epicenter. We can go to dinner.”

Passenger Aaron Morrison II, who arrived at the station at 8:20 a.m., said he’s been “obsessed” with the line’s opening. Morrison said he’s more excited about the train itself than the connection to uptown, but added, “This will really link the university to Charlotte.”

As the train headed south, Morrison looked out the window, at various strip shopping centers along North Tryon Street.

“Soon all of this will be torn down with something else built here,” he said.

The extension links UNC Charlotte, the North Tryon Street corridor and NoDa to uptown.

It’s also an interesting ride visually. As it heads toward uptown, the extension passes through a 1,000-foot tunnel to get into the median of North Tryon Street.

Several long bridges give sweeping views of the area, including one of uptown’s skyscrapers. CATS also invested heavily in public art on the extension, and the stations feature projects by 11 different artists.

Art on other parts of the line includes walls and bridges, bike parking racks and the stair towers for pedestrians over the light-rail tracks and two park-ride lots.

CATS chief executive John Lewis has said he now plans to focus on finishing the 2030 transit plan, which calls for more rail lines. Lewis wants to build rail from uptown to Lake Norman; from uptown to the airport and Matthews. The estimated cost is between $5 billion and $7 billion.

The extension cost $1.1 billion, with the federal government paying for half. The city and the state split the other half.

light rail extension
Staff graphic

Charlotte expects the extension will add 18,000 daily passenger trips to the existing rail line, which now carries about 15,000 trips on a weekday. By 2035, CATS expects the extension will handle 24,500 trips.

CATS will operate the trains every 8 minutes during rush hour in the morning and evening. On weekdays during non-peak times, the Lynx will arrive every 15 minutes. After 7:20 p.m., the trains will come every 20 minutes.

The extension has four park-and-ride lots with 3,100 spaces total. Three of those are parking decks at Sugar Creek, J.W. Clay Boulevard and University City Boulevard stations.

The Old Concord Road park-and-ride station, which is a surface lot, and the Sugar Creek deck will be free.

CATS, however, will charge a fee to use the JW Clay Boulevard and University Boulevard station decks. But people riding the Lynx will be able to park for free, so long as they have a daily, weekly or monthly pass. Riders can’t use a one-way, roundtrip or 10-ride pass to exit the decks for free.

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs

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