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Toll Lanes Are Open, So Why Aren't Express Buses Using Them?

The new CATS commuter buses are more comfortable
CATS
CATS express buses won't begin using toll lanes on I-77 until the project is complete later this year.

Thousands of drivers a day have been using toll lanes on I-77 for speedier commutes since the first 15-mile section opened in June in the Lake Norman area. But it may be a while before commuter buses are taking advantage of the lanes. 

A shorter commuter bus ride to and from uptown was one of the promises of the 26-mile Interstate 77 Express Lanes project between Charlotte and Mooresville. But more than six weeks after the northern section of the project opened, Charlotte Area Transit System express buses still aren't using the lanes.

CATS CEO John Lewis said the problem is the phased opening of the lanes. Fifteen miles are now open between Mooresville and Huntersville. But the remaining nine miles from Huntersville to uptown Charlotte won't be open until later this year.  

"Our current routes have to serve multiple stops and once you get in the express lane you're kind of challenged in where you can ingress and egress from that," Lewis said. "So we're not going to use it on the outbound trip until the entire corridor is done." 

That means commuters on buses to and from Davidson, Cornelius and Huntersville (the 77X and 48X buses) won't see any improvement in their northbound commutes for now. But Lewis said CATS buses could soon begin using the lanes for commutes.   

"We're evaluating that now, and once we determine which routes can get in and out at the right places then I think passengers will start to see that in the coming weeks," he said. 

Lewis said CATS also still has to install and test toll transponders and train drivers. 

Meanwhile, CATS also is laying plans to increase the number of daily express runs once buses begin using the express lanes. Eventually, each park and ride lot will have its own bus directly to and from Charlotte, Lewis said.

Commuter buses are CATS' main strategy for easing the commute to and from Lake Norman in the years ahead. Officials have been planning for a commuter rail line from Charlotte to Mooresville, but the railroad that controls the existing tracks, Norfolk Southern, opposes using them for commuter service.

Lewis has proposed expanded "bus rapid transit" as a solution. Once commuter buses begin using the toll lanes, it could sharply reduce the length of a bus ride from the Lake Norman area to Charlotte.

CATS could get extra money for that project. The Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization was scheduled to vote Wednesday night on a plan to transfer $292,000 in federal funding to expand commuter bus service. Lewis said the money would be used to pay for more frequent express buses as demand increases.