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After Six Months, Light Rail To UNC Charlotte Has Fewer Riders Than Projected

Steve Harrison
The Charlotte Area Transit System projected the Lynx Blue Line would average about 33,500 passenger trips on the average weekday. But in the first six months since the extension opened, ridership has been about 25,400.

When Charlotte Area Transit System was building the $1.1 billion light rail extension, the transit system projected the entire 19-mile line would carry about 33,500 passengers on a weekday, in the first year. The train is supposed to keep increasing passengers each year after that.

But in the first six months since the extension has been open, the LYNX has averaged 25,400 weekday passengers.

CATS chief executive John Lewis said ridership is picking up.

“I think when you look at the trend, we opened in March, I think we got good preliminary numbers," Lewis said. "And with UNC Charlotte being a major destination and a major trip generator being out over the summer, we lost some ridership over the summer. But since September we have been on the right track.”

In August, the LYNX averaged 27,100 weekday trips — its highest monthly total since the extension opened.

That fell to 26,200 in September, though Hurricane Florence shut down much of the city for one day before its arrival.

CATS also said the LYNX extension has lost some riders because the North Carolina Department of Transportation hasn’t finished the East Sugar Creek Road bridge, which makes it difficult to reach the park-and-ride lot at the Sugar Creek station.

But it’s unclear how much more ridership will grow.

Credit Steve Harrison
CATS recently revamped its bus system by adding more cross-town routes.

Across the nation, and in Charlotte, transit ridership has fallen. Experts say a number of factors are driving the decrease, such as more Americans owning cars and relatively cheap gasoline. People are also using ride-share companies like Uber and Lyft.

David Hartgen, a retired UNC Charlotte professor who is now a transportation consultant, said the transit system's projection of about 18,000 weekday passenger trips in its first year was too high. The original LYNX Line along South Boulevard has carried about 15,500 people.

"I thought the traffic projections were way out of scale when I first saw them," Hartgen said.

He said one problem is that there are fewer people and fewer jobs along the extension compared with the original line.

"We basically built this on a dream that never materialized," Hartgen said. "Society has moved on. Everyone has cars, access to a car or access to something better than a car, which is an Uber trip for times when you shouldn’t be on the road driving.”

In an attempt to bring back riders, CATS has revamped its bus system by adding more cross-town routes. Before, almost all bus routes went uptown.

The original rail line went through some relatively dense areas of the city that had already been developed, especially in South End and at Woodlawn and Tyvola Roads.

On the Blue Line Extension, the Parkwood and 25th Street stations north of uptown are adjacent to Norfolk Southern rail tracks, and there is no high-density development nearby.

Lewis said that’s changing.

“I think we’re building not only for today’s ridership, but for the future," he said. "And as that corridor continues to develop, we’ll see the same trends of the Blue Line Extension that we saw on the opening of the first phase.”

CATS is still moving ahead with plans to build new rail lines that could cost as much as $7 billion. One proposed line would run from uptown to Lake Norman. Another project — called the Silver Line — would run from Matthews to the airport, via uptown.

By the end of this year, CATS says it will make a recommendation on how the Silver Line should pass through uptown Charlotte. One option is an east-west tunnel that would be about a mile and a half long.

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.