May 2011

CATS Light Rail Success Moves Transit Plan Ahead

by Jennifer Washington, Assistant Editor

The LYNX Blue Line surpassed its 20-year projected ridership within its first year of service, providing more than 12 million rides since opening in November 2007. An extension is slated for opening around 2016. Photos Courtesy: CATS

The LYNX Blue Line surpassed its 20-year projected ridership within its first year of service, providing more than 12 million rides since opening in November 2007. An extension is slated for opening around 2016. Photos Courtesy: CATS
Serving the south corridor of Charlotte, N.C., since November 2007, the Charlotte Area Transit System's (CATS) successful LYNX Blue Line (LBL) light rail system is one of many planned city projects, including a light rail extension slated to open around 2016.

The 9.6-mile LBL surpassed its 20-year projected ridership within its first year in service and has provided more than 12 million rides since opening. As part of its 2030 Transit Corridor System Plan, CATS also plans to create bus rapid transit, commuter rail, fixed-route bus lines, streetcar and facility improvements in an integrated transit and land use approach.

The LBL's 15 stations and seven park-and-rides serve more than 15,000 Mecklenburg County daily commuters as well as special-events traffic, nearby residents, lunch-time riders and customers visiting historic Charlotte.

Thanks to integration with the CATS bus system, customers can get off the LBL at a station and walk right to their next bus, and vice versa, says Carolyn Flowers, CEO of CATS. "[It's] very easy for customers to transfer from one to another."

Currently, the LBL has a 99 percent on-time service rate, according to CATS. "Everybody wants their rail next," says Jean Leier, CATS manager of public and community relations. "It's a good problem to have. We can't build them fast enough."

Scaling Down the Project

During the planning process, establishing light rail in an area that did not have previous rail history proved to be the greatest challenge for CATS, Flowers says. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, rising prices of steel and the onset of the recession were also major obstacles.

"A lot of labor went down to the New Orleans area to help clean up after [Hurricane Katrina]," says John Muth, CATS deputy director. As a result of various cost increases and funding issues, CATS decided to reduce the scope of the project.

"We cut [the length of the platforms] from three-car platforms to two-car platforms to try and save some money," Muth says. "So, not only did we put a bit of extra money in, but we also had to cut some things from the project."

Despite some setbacks, the LBL has proven to be a great success for Charlotte and continues to draw riders, en masse, on a daily basis. In addition to rising gas prices, Muth attributes the great customer response to the land use ordinances CATS put in place to encourage transit area development around LBL stations.

"The city had a $50 million infrastructure program that built and expanded sidewalks and bicycle access onto our station areas," Muth adds. "As soon as we opened, [customers] were out there using the system."


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