Politics & Government

Light-rail ridership is below projections. Why CATS says that's OK.

Ridership on the Lynx Blue Line Extension in May was again below first-year projections, but the Charlotte Area Transit System said it believes the $1.1 billion project is on track.

The extension opened in mid-March, and CATS recently released ridership for May, its second complete month of operation.

The entire Blue Line carried 24,544 passengers on an average weekday in May. In April, the light-rail line carried 24,333 passengers on an average weekday.

CATS projected the entire 20-mile rail line would carry about 33,500 passengers on an average weekday in the first full year of the extension.

Olaf Kinard, assistant director of public transit for CATS, said the May ridership shows the train is doing well because most of UNC Charlotte's classes had ended. The extension runs from uptown to UNC Charlotte.

"I think it's fantastic and I'll tell you why," Kinard said. "(May) is when our major ridership source left for the summer. You go from a 28,000- or 29,000-student campus down to 4,000. And for us to have over 24,500 riders — that's strong."

Kinard said he believes that means the Blue Line is attracting new riders who have replaced students. He said he expects to see an "ebb and flow" in ridership over the first year, depending on UNC Charlotte's academic calendar. He predicts ridership to rise in August when school starts and then fall again in December when students go on winter break.

UNC Charlotte students receive an all-access transit pass as part of their mandatory student fees.

The Gold Line streetcar saw ridership drop from 40,493 in May 2017 to 17,713 in May 2018.

What's likely driving the steep decline is that CATS ended the free Gold Rush bus service that went from Johnson C. Smith University to the Spectrum Center. Before the Gold Rush ended, people could ride the free shuttle bus from the university to uptown, then switch to the free streetcar. That brought them to Central Piedmont Community College or Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center.

CATS ended the Gold Rush bus shuttle because it's building an expansion of the streetcar.

Local bus service declined 5.5 percent in May compared with the same month a year earlier. Express bus service inside Mecklenburg dropped 23 percent, and express bus service serving commuters who live outside the county dropped 27 percent.

CATS is redesigning its bus network in the hopes it will boost ridership.

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs