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Fact-checking the city's talking points for a new uptown bus station

The main bus station uptown. The Charlotte Area Transit System has seen bus ridership decline by 75 percent since 2014.
Steve Harrison
The city has proposed rebuilding the city's main bus station uptown

The Charlotte Area Transit System is holding public meetings this week about rebuilding the Charlotte Transportation Center, the main bus station, underground.

The city and CATS have proposed rebuilding the station underground to make way for a new mixed-use development with offices, retail and a hotel. The city may also rebuild the station at street level, or on a second or third floor.

CATS chief executive John Lewis has been laying out the case for a new bus station.

WFAE’s Steve Harrison spoke with Claire Donnelly to fact-check what Lewis has said.

Donnelly: Steve, let’s start and give us an overview of the bus station, or the Charlotte Transportation Center as it’s called.

Harrison: Sure. It was built in 1995. And from a transit perspective, it’s a great location. Two blocks from Trade and Tryon. About 30 feet from a Gold Line streetcar stop, and only a little farther to the Lynx Blue Line light rail.

But like you said earlier, a developer — Charlotte-based White Point Partners — wants to remake the site. And the city is on board with this plan.

Donnelly: OK, so walk me through what the city is saying. I understand one argument is that it lacks amenities needed for the 21st century. One being that it gets hot and cold under the station canopy, right?

Harrison: Yes, here is what Lewis said about that.

Lewis: “Despite the fact that it is a covered facility, it is still an open-air facility. When it’s hot outside, it’s hot in the transit center. When it’s cold outside, it’s cold in the transit center.”

Harrison: Now, OK, that is technically correct. But what Lewis didn’t tell the City Council is that the station also has two climate-controlled waiting rooms. So you can wait for your bus under the large canopy — or you can sit in the AC.

It’s a bit like saying that it gets hot and cold in my garage, but not mentioning that…well…I can just go inside my climate-controlled house.

Donnelly: And CATS has said the transit center just doesn’t work anymore. Why is that?

Harrison: The bus station is certainly dirty and could use a refresh to make it look less like its age.

But Lewis has said it’s “nearing the end of its useful life.” But CATS hasn’t said really what it means. It has not talked about any structural problems with the building or the canopy.

And you can’t say that the station is overwhelmed with passengers. Bus riders are down 75 percent since 2014 — so when you go there today, the CTC is often pretty empty.

Lewis also said the design of the station isn’t safe in terms of the interaction between buses and passengers. He said it’s dangerous to have bus passengers crossing the apron where the buses park — although he didn’t give any details about passengers who have been hit by buses.

There are crosswalks inside the bus station, but a lot of people don’t use them.

Donnelly: But when you ride the light-rail in Charlotte, don’t people cross the rail tracks all the time?

Harrison: They do. It’s actually part of the design. Rather than have expensive bridges over the tracks, CATS directs you to walk across the rails to get to the other side.

That’s not to say that’s dangerous — but that the city and CATS have decided some risk is acceptable in riding the light-rail or streetcar.

So for the bus station, the transit system wants to place all bus passengers in an enclosed indoor space, like an airport terminal.

Donnelly: So you mentioned the streetcar and the light-rail. This is another point of contention with CATS, that it’s just hard to transfer from a bus to the train, right?

Harrison: That’s what CATS is saying. Here is Lewis:

Lewis: "And then we have poor connections to the Blue Line and Gold Line. We retrofitted the facility to make connections between the Blue Line and Gold Line. These are not ideal connections. They aren’t seamless and they aren’t intuitive.”

Harrison: This is a headscratcher.

Let’s start with the Gold Line. You can easily throw a football from the bus station to the streetcar stop on Trade Street. It’s about 30 feet. You just have to walk there. You can’t make it any more seamless and it’s already intuitive because…you can see it.

As for the Blue Line, it’s also right next to the station. And there is a seamless connection. You can go up two flights of stairs (or an elevator) and then walk on a ramp right to the platform.

There aren’t many signs in the bus station, but that’s arguably because passengers have figured this out.

Donnelly: And CATS says it can’t give City Council yet an estimate about how much it would cost to build the station underground compared to building it at street level. Why is that?

Harrison: I asked Lewis about this, as did City Council member Ed Driggs, who asked: can you say that digging a large hole in the ground and building inside it is more expensive than just remaking it at street level?

That seems pretty obvious right?

But Lewis says he doesn’t know enough to say that. And he says that CATS never gives cost estimates for projects until it reaches a certain level of design work.

Donnelly: And is that correct?

Harrison: It is not.

CATS routinely gives costs estimates before it’s done a significant amount of design work. Take the Silver Line light-rail from Matthews to the airport.

CATS decided against a tunnel through uptown, saying repeatedly it would be too expensive. And earlier this year it changed the alignment through uptown and estimated it would save $1 billion — even though it hadn’t done any extensive engineering work to arrive at that number.

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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.