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Transit Time is a weekly newsletter for Charlotte people who leave the house. Cars, buses, light rail, bikes, scooters ... if you use it to get around the city, you can read news and analysis about it here. Transit Time is produced in partnership by WFAE and The Charlotte Ledger. Subscribe here.

After Thanksgiving meltdown, CLT airport is taking steps to improve holiday traffic

Line of cars going to the airport
Steve Harrison
Long lines of traffic heading to the airport terminal over Thanksgiving have prompted airport officials to make some changes in hopes of getting vehicles moving during the upcoming holiday season.

Last week, Transit Time examined the Thanksgiving traffic meltdown at Charlotte Douglas and brainstormed short-term and long-term solutions to fix the mess.

We also asked for reader suggestions. And boy, did you readers come through.

But before we get to those ideas, Transit Time spoke this week with CLT’s chief operating officer, Jerome Woodard, who said the airport has convened an “internal working group” to look at ways to keep vehicles moving.

Some changes will be coming in the next week or two, ahead of the Christmas holiday:

  • More staffing: The airport plans to have more staff helping people cross the lanes of traffic on the arrivals level. The staff will also be there to make sure cars move faster.
  • Rerouting buses: CLT is planning to change the routes for some shuttle buses from the express decks, long-term lot 1, and the employee and crew lots. “We will put some of those shuttle buses on alternative routing,” Woodard said. “It’s not a bus-only lane. It’s an alternate route.”
  • Improved signs: The airport is planning to place signs along roads to give people an estimate of how long it will take from that point to reach the terminal. It also plans to have more information online telling people the same thing. “We will borrow a cue from the Disney folks,” Woodard said. “They have signage that says it will be X number of minutes from this point. There will be traffic. The onus on the airport is to communicate that.”
  • Harmonizing traffic signals: The airport said it will partner with the N.C. Department of Transportation and the city of Charlotte to “change the timing and signalization of lights to allow more consistent movement on Wilkinson Boulevard.”

Will these fixes work? The Christmas travel season probably won’t give us an answer because it’s much more dispersed than Thanksgiving.
Drop-off shuttles? Transit Time also proposed some long-term solutions, such as building drop-off areas off Wilkinson Boulevard and Billy Graham Parkway. People could drive in and drop off their passengers, who would then catch shuttle buses to the terminal. The buses would operate in bus-only lanes.

Woodard said that’s an intriguing idea, although the airport first has to find available land.

“We also have to have the shuttle bus resources,” he said. “It takes a lot of coordination. But it’s a great idea because it removes a population from the roadway.”

Transit Time also proposed ideas such as moving taxis and ride-share companies away from the arrivals areas and building an entirely new entrance near the A gates that are under construction.

Woodard said those options would be years in the making, though “everything is on the table.”

Transit Time readers weigh in on airport traffic fixes

This topic struck a chord with Transit Time readers. After all, who wants to sit in traffic for an hour to pick up Aunt Judy?

From moving the rental car center to better training of traffic personnel, our readers had no shortage of opinions and ideas. A sampling:

Fix the pedestrian crossing by the terminal

  • “My husband and I were part of the many Thanksgiving travelers who waited hours for a pickup. The biggest issue we noticed was the poor training of the crossing guards. ALL foot traffic was being allowed to pass at will at the first section of pickups (station A). So cars were being stopped every five minutes to let walkers pass, which led to areas B, C, D and E waiting. If walkers were parsed every 10 minutes, at the end of the terminal, this would allow more cars to enter the pick-up zone and load their passengers. An hour could have been shaved off had my husband been allowed to direct traffic!”
  • “The pedestrian traffic currently crossing the arrivals-area traffic needs to have a walkway either over or under the cars.”
  • “The construction access above the pick-up/drop-off area needs to be opened. The access above and below that area needs to be well-signed, especially for rental cars. And the ability to walk across the passenger pick-up needs to be closed off from the parking deck side.”
  • “My family flew into and out of Detroit the weekend before Thanksgiving, and we were picked up and dropped off in a matter of a few minutes. It was different than CLT: There were the same number of lanes, but the difference was in how they used them. Instead of shooing cars away, the traffic control officers actually directed traffic. Drivers stopped three or four lanes wide as passengers loaded and unloaded. The officers would direct drivers to openings, hold up cars on the left while a car on the right pulled out, etc. It was very orderly, and at least three times the number of people could come and go in the same amount of time. Also, there were no passengers crossing from the parking side to the terminal side. That is the stupidest design ever.”

Move Uber, Lyft and taxis:

  • “Ride share requires them to drop off upstairs and then if they fill a ride (which is typical), they must circle back around and get in line again to go downstairs. This must have a huge impact.”
  • “Re-locate taxi/Uber away from regular pick-up/drop-off, like Nashville, Salt Lake City and Detroit. I would put this where the old control tower is currently located. This real estate is too valuable to not be used efficiently.”

Charge for driving to the terminal; encourage use of shuttles instead

  • “The solution to terminal traffic is the same as it is for almost any other supply and demand problem: pricing. This might sound absurd at first, but want to drop someone off at the terminal at Heathrow Airport? That will be £5 please ($6.30). … You’re not forced to pay to drive someone to or from the airport: There’s free use of long-term parking lots for pick-ups or drop-offs with complimentary shuttle service to the terminal. Setting an appropriate price for pulling up to the terminal curb — and, especially, allowing it to vary, moving up during busy times like Thanksgiving and down at quiet ones like October Tuesdays at noon — could end the traffic snarls while preserving speedy direct access to the terminal for those who are willing to pay (such as passengers running late).”

Relocate the car rental counter so it’s farther away

  • “A lot of the incoming traffic to the airport was due to people picking up and dropping off rented vehicles, which are stored in the first garage across from the terminal. Perhaps moving the car rental companies back away from the terminal and using shuttles to move people arriving and departing to the rental car companies would relieve that part of the congestion.”
  • “Most airports have the car rental decks far from the airport, with light rail connecting the terminal with the Car Rental Center. Cars are returned away from terminal traffic.”

General complaints about planning

  • “So they raised parking prices significantly, deliberately designed the light rail to be inconvenient, and created a traffic nightmare. Sounds like local customers are a very low priority.”
  • “The fact that this wasn’t thought of before the redesign is bizarre. Widening the drop-off area but not making it any longer or adding a second or even third drop-off/ pick-up zone was incredibly short sighted. It seems that we have some real infrastructure challenges across the city!”
  • “Special entry for handicapped passengers is needed. I had to walk a long way before getting service.”
  • “The story here is about the poor planning/oversight of a multi-billion-dollar airport renovation. The airport’s goal to keep gate fees low requires that construction is constantly in a ‘catch up’ mode. I think that is fine. I’ll take the trade-off to ensure we maintain a major airline hub. However the master plan was and is ill-conceived. Most notably in terms of drop-off/pick-up, parking and overcrowding in terminals B and C.”

A final shout-out to X (Twitter) user @_Rob_G_, whom we have come to learn posted a similar idea to one of ours a few days before last week’s edition of Transit Time came out.

@_Rob_G_’s idea (with handmade image): Use different levels at the terminal and move the vehicle drop-off to the parking lot by the old control tower.

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Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.