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Charlotte's streetcar operating off-schedule more than half of the 100 days it's been open

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WFAE/Transit Time
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The Charlotte Area Transit System said staffing shortages has led to the new Gold Line streetcar rarely operating on a 20-minute schedule.

Tuesday marked 100 days since Charlotte’s Gold Line streetcar extension opened.

Safe to say it’s been a rough debut.

The Charlotte Area Transit System Twitter account has reported Gold Line schedule delays on 55 of those days.

On 17 of those days, CATS said the problems stemmed from cars being parked on the streetcar tracks or an accident that blocked the streetcar’s path. That’s not the transit system’s fault, of course.

On 33 of the days with delays, CATS tweeted out that the streetcar would be starting a route every 30, 40 or even 60 minutes. The Gold Line is supposed to run cars in 20-minute intervals — which is already infrequent, considering how short of a distance it carries people (four miles from end to end).

On the other days, the streetcar was delayed for problems like mechanical failures.

It’s unclear if the frequent delays have led to low ridership — or if that’s simply the result of the coronavirus pandemic, erroneous projections or a combination of both. The Gold Line has averaged about 1,275 passenger trips on the average weekday.

When construction began before the pandemic, CATS projected it would handle 4,100 trips on the average weekday. Leaders have since said that because of COVID-19, it could take a while to reach that mark.

CATS declined to make anyone available for an interview, though it did answer some questions in writing.

On the problem of cars blocking the streetcar, CATS said it has conducted “marketing campaigns, social media campaigns, sent press releases and direct Rider’s Alerts to combat the issue” of people parking on the tracks. It said it has done three “blitzes” to talk with business owners along the alignment, educating them that food delivery drivers can’t park on the tracks.

The biggest schedule disruption, however, has been the transit system’s decision to operate streetcars at 30-, 40- or 60-minute intervals.

CATS said that’s due to not having enough staff and “limited equipment.”

“The effects of COVID-19 have impacted our organization the same as other businesses across the country,” CATS said in a statement. “We too are struggling with a varying workforce, limited equipment availability and a labor shortage.”

The transit system added that it’s “making every effort to hire and train bus and rail operators while continuing to provide safe service.”

But that leaves other questions.

Is this simply a labor issue — or are there other systemic problems with the streetcar that’s causing the delays?

In response to a question about mechanical issues with the 3-month-old streetcar, CATS spokesperson Juliann Sheldon said she’s “working to get that information.” CATS didn’t provide that information before this story was published.

The Gold Line connects four main hubs: Johnson C. Smith University, uptown, Central Piedmont Community College and Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center.

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Steve Harrison/WFAE
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CATS said staffing shortages have made it difficult to maintain the streetcar's planned 20-minute headways.

Three of those hubs are back operating normally, or close to normally: The two schools, along with the hospital. Uptown is slower than usual since some major employers have not fully returned to the office because of COVID=19 concerns.

But with streetcars running at 30- or 40-minute intervals — or “headways,” in transit-speak — passengers can’t rely on the Gold Line for consistent service.

“They’re not going to depend on it with that kind of frequency or reliability,” said Ron Tober, the former director of CATS who was in charge when the Blue Line opened in 2007. “I will say I’m very disappointed to hear they aren’t running more frequent service and taking advantage of the fact that there are a lot more people in the downtown area than there used to be.”

Krissy Oechslin is the chair of the CATS’ Transit Services Advisory Committee and a self-proclaimed “transit evangelist” who commutes to work on the No. 9 bus on Central Avenue. That route has 10-minute headways during rush hour.

She said the Gold Line’s 20-minute headways — when operating on schedule — are too long.

“No, I wouldn’t wait 20 minutes for that,” she said. “It’s not worth it.”

She said she understands why the Gold Line gets attention since it’s the newest part of the CATS system and the extension cost $150 million to build. But she’s more frustrated by other delays throughout the CATS system, including the Lynx Blue Line and more heavily used bus routes.

“It makes me a little uncomfortable to put so much focus on the Gold Line not operating properly — which it should. I’d rather fix the buses before the Gold Line,” she said. “But at the same time, I know the city has spent so much money on it, and for it not to work is a shame. It’s just a joy ride right now.”

She added: “There was a public commenter at city meeting who said we shouldn’t have to pay for it now because it’s so unreliable now. And I was like, what do you think bus riders think every day?”

CATS has not given the Charlotte City Council a detailed presentation on Gold Line ridership or service delays.

At-large City Council member Julie Eiselt chairs the city’s transportation committee and is a huge proponent of expanding bus service. She said she hasn’t tracked the service problems with the Gold Line and isn’t aware of the problems.

Council member Larken Egleston said he’s heard of problems about the level of service but hasn’t looked at it closely. When told about the streetcar often operating with 30- and 40-minute headways, he said that’s not frequent enough for people to use it for important trips.

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Steve Harrison/WFAE
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CATS will start charging to ride the Gold Line next month.

Kurt Knaak, who lives in Elizabeth, said he takes the Gold Line for pleasure trips. He’s happy it was built.

“The problem we’ve run into is returning, particularly when you want to pick it up somewhere downtown like Trade and Tryon, for example,” he said. “It’s hit or miss with the 20-minute intervals because cars and drivers are still not trained to be able to not park on the tracks. It’s either just bad design or a lack of training.”

The Gold Line, which runs from 5 a.m. to 2 a.m. seven days a week, is free for the rest of the year. Starting in January, CATS plans to charge riders the cost of a one-way bus or train fare, which is $2.20.