May 01, 2015 12:04PM
● By Jason Huddle
BLE Alignment Map
When the LYNX light rail system began operating in 2007, there were a number of Doubting Thomases that felt the Charlotte area wasn't ready, predicting the venture would not succeed.
The doubters were quickly silenced. The original route – the Blue Line, with 15 stations – takes passengers from Pineville at I-485 to the Charlotte Area Transit Station (CATS) in uptown. Ridership surpassed projections from the start, and second quarter 2014 figures showed that some 16,500 commuters ride the light rail to their destinations each day.
LYNX was originally part of the 2025 Integrated Transit/Land-Use Plan, which utilizes rapid transit, buses and streetcars to transport citizens to shopping, activities and nightlife. And, as far back as 1984, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission included a light rail line to UNC Charlotte in its 2005 Vision Plan. It never got to the study phase, though, because city council would not back Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt.
Additional LYNX lines were again studied in 1988, during Sue Myrick’s tenure as mayor. With the CATS station as the nucleus, routes would extend to key areas in the Charlotte-Metro region: the aforementioned UNC Charlotte; Fort Mill/Rock Hill; and Matthews/Monroe.
Years went by with construction costs continuing to rise, and support and funding remaining stagnant. These factors delayed the start of the LYNX project until, finally, in 1998, a half-cent sales tax was voter approved in Charlotte-Mecklenburg. That meant Charlotte could equal the funding provided by Federal Transit Administration (FTA) grants and financing could be obtained.
Now some exciting changes are taking place close to home. In 2011, the FTA awarded CATS a Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery III (TIGER III) grant in the amount of $18 million. And in July of 2013, the Blue Line Capacity Expansion Project – Blue Line Extension or BLE for short – groundbreaking was held.
Sayra H. Brynn is public and community relations specialist for CATS. She says, “The Blue Line Extension (Northeast Corridor) is one of the five corridors identified for rapid transit improvements in the 2025 Transit/Land-Use Plan that was created in 1998. In 2002 and 2006, the Metropolitan Transit Commission adopted the 2030 Transit System Plan, which included the LYNX Blue Line Extension light rail project in the northeast corridor.”
Still under construction, the Blue Line Extension is a 9.4-mile stretch that will take passengers from uptown to UNC Charlotte and offer 11 stations. However, due to the recession, the original plan of bringing the extension to I-485 and Highway 29, along with two more stations, was nixed. So, instead of a $1.12-billion price tag estimated in 2010, the cost was lowered to $977 million and will end at the university campus.
The goal for this extension – besides more efficiently taking people where they want to go – is to alleviate some of the traffic congestion, especially on I-85. Stations will be located in key locations: Parkwood Avenue, 25th Street, in NoDa at 36th and Davidson streets; Sugar Creek Road and North Davidson; Old Concord Road; Tom Hunter Road; University City Boulevard; McCullough; the J.W. Clay Building; and UNC Charlotte.
“Station areas around the BLE are expected to see increased growth and development,” Brynn says. “The City of Charlotte has adopted Station Area Plans to guide the future growth. Transit-oriented development policies call for more walkable, focused growth in the transit corridors. Cabarrus County residents will have the option to use a park and ride location for the BLE or to use connecting bus service. Final planning for the route changes for bus services to connect into the rail stations will be starting in the next year, including public review and comment opportunities.”
This LYNX extension is no small feat. The logistics of creating an effective route isn’t lost on those familiar with the area. This includes relocating underground utilities like water and sewer mains. Existing railroad line rights-of-way are being used as available, such as the Norfolk Southern line near Parkwood Avenue. Other property has been purchased, like a scrap yard near Sugar Creek Road and private land from some not-so-happy owners. Bridges and overpasses are being constructed to deal with existing thoroughfares like Eastway Drive, North Tryon near the I-85 connector and W.T. Harris Boulevard.
“At the completion of the project, North Tryon Street will have light rail in the median from Old Concord Road to UNC Charlotte (Institute Circle). North Tryon Street is being widened out with the project to allow for light rail in the median, and improvements will include bike lanes, sidewalks and planting strips with street trees,” Brynn adds.
Completion of the extension was slated for 2016, but factors like the utility relocation have moved that back to 2017. “There are construction crews working throughout the corridor: Seg-ment A (from uptown to Old Concord Road) and Segments B/C (from Old Concord Road to UNC Charlotte),” Brynn explains. “Also, parking garage construction has started on the two of the largest parking garages at J.W. Clay Parking Garage and University City Boulevard Parking Garage.”
The economic development that’s anticipated along this line is predicted to bring an average of 24,500 weekday LYNX passengers by 2035. These riders will board 22 new rail cars (for a
total of 42 in the fleet) and use four park and ride stations that will accommodate some 3,000 parked cars. If someone were to ride the LYNX all the way from Pineville to UNC Charlotte, the total travel time would be 47 minutes.
The type of development envisioned for this corridor is mixed-use and directly linked to the stations. For example, in NoDa, a transit-oriented development (TOD) study projects 25,000 multi-family units, 9 million square feet of office space and 2.3 million square feet of retail space will be constructed in the vicinity of its station by 2030. And the Rocky River Station envisions “transit-supportive development that focuses on creating compact neighborhoods with housing, jobs, shopping, community services and recreational opportunities, all within easy walking distance of a transit station,” according to CATS.
When asked what ridership demographic CATS sees for the Blue Line Extension, Brynn says, “People traveling to work – major employers include Center City employers, UNC Charlotte, Carolinas Medical Center Hospital-University, University City employers; students traveling to UNC Charlotte main campus or to UNC Charlotte uptown campus; people traveling for shopping, restaurants and other non-work trips (eg. NoDa and University City destinations); and people going to special events downtown as well as at UNC Charlotte.”
Those of us in Cabarrus County can’t help but wonder when LYNX will reach such hotspots as Charlotte Motor Speedway and the Concord Mills corridor. “There have been informal discussions of expanding light rail into Cabarrus County at some time in the future. No timeframe for this has been identified,” Brynn says.
Proponents of that goal, and members of the board of the Metropolitan Transit Commission, are Concord Mayor Scott Padgett and City of Concord Councilmember David Phillips.
Funding would be a key component to adding light rail to Cabarrus County’s landscape. “The current LYNX system is funded by federal and state grants and local funds,” Brynn explains. “The local funding comes from a half-cent sales tax for transit in Mecklenburg County. Funding for extensions into surrounding counties would need to be identified.”
In the meantime, trains on the Blue Line Extension will operate from 5:00am to 1:00am, seven days a week, stopping at stations every ten minutes during rush hour and every 15 minutes otherwise. CATS bus fares and LYNX fares are the same, currently $2.20 per adult.