© 2024 WFAE

Mailing Address:
8801 J.M. Keynes Dr. Ste. 91
Charlotte NC 28262
Tax ID: 56-1803808
90.7 Charlotte 93.7 Southern Pines 90.3 Hickory 106.1 Laurinburg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
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.

Looking at the high cost of Charlotte’s streetcar

Streetcar in uptown Charlotte
The Charlotte Ledger
The Gold Line streetcar in uptown Charlotte.

Since the second phase of the Gold Line streetcar opened nearly three years ago, it’s been plagued by a number of problems:

  • Cars parking in its path, causing delays. 
  • Not enough train operators, leading to reduced service. 
  • And just not enough riders overall.

A Federal Transit Administration report gives some insight into the Gold Line’s financial challenges.
The FTA’s most recent report for the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) — covering fiscal year 2022 — has one eye-popping metric: how much it costs to move a passenger one mile.

  • For the Lynx Blue Line light rail, it was $2.10. 
  • For CATS buses, it was $3.14.
  • For the streetcar? $18.90.

That’s right — nearly $19 to carry one passenger a mile.
There are many reasons for that.

One is that there just aren’t that many people riding the Gold Line. And the people who are riding it are riding short distances. And finally, the streetcar is far more expensive to operate than a bus.

(Before the Gold Line was built, CATS used to operate a free shuttle bus along Trade Street called the Gold Rush.)

How CATS got to nearly $19 a mile

Here is how the math breaks down.

In the first 10 months of the second segment of the streetcar being open, CATS spent $7.12 million in operating costs, according to the FTA. (That doesn’t include the $150 million to build the second phase of the Gold Line.)

The streetcar carried 342,000 passengers in those 10 months, or an average of 34,200 passengers a month.

But even though the streetcar is four miles long, the average trip length was just 1.1 miles. That equals 380,000 passenger miles.

When you divide $7.12 million by 380,000 miles, you get nearly $19.

The riders themselves don’t help defray any of that, as riding the streetcar is free.

Some improvement

The good news for CATS is that streetcar ridership has increased, making it more efficient.

For fiscal year 2023, streetcar ridership grew by nearly 50%.

WFAE reached out to CATS to determine the operating expense for fiscal year 2023, but the transit system didn’t respond.

Transit Time estimates the per-passenger mile cost was around $12.75. That’s still four times as expensive as a bus, but that’s better than six times as expensive.

Why such high costs?

One reason the streetcar is so expensive is that it doesn’t carry as many riders as projected.

Before the second phase of the streetcar opened in 2021, CATS projected it would carry 4,100 passengers on the average weekday. In October 2023, it carried fewer than 1,800.

Transit officials have acknowledged the streetcar ridership has struggled, though they haven’t discussed its high costs publicly.

CATS recently returned to having the streetcar run every 20 minutes. Last fall, it had switched to having trains arrive every 30 minutes because it didn’t have enough drivers.

The transit system hopes offering more frequent service will attract more riders — which, of course, would help drive down that per-mile cost.

Sign up for our daily headlines newsletter

Select Your Email Format

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.