Updated Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018
The Lynx Blue Line extension from uptown to UNC Charlotte opens in just a month. CATS has been running empty trains on the new light rail tracks since January. On Tuesday, a few citizens were the first to try it out, and they're already imagining the possibilities.
A Blue Line train with a sign saying "not in service" arrived around 10:30 a.m. at 9th Street Station, not far from UNC Charlotte's uptown campus. A hand-picked group of nine people was already on the train, after starting their journey at the Blue Line's southern end, at I-485. Michael Fleming explained how he wound up on the train.
“So I saw on social media from CATS they were just doing a little kind of contest that you could be one of the first riders on the new line. So I sent an email over and they selected me to ride today,” Fleming said.
Fleming is a social media manager who lives and works in an apartment next to the 36th street station in NoDa.
“I'm just excited for the extension, so I can hop on from my apartment building and ride to uptown or over to university,” he said.
These residents were a sort of rolling focus group, offering CATS feedback on the 9.3-mile extension, which adds 11 stations from 7th street uptown to the UNC Charlotte campus.
NOT A TUNNEL
One of the line's more interesting features is a tunnel under North Tryon Street onto the college campus. But don't call it a tunnel, CATS spokeswoman Krystel Green explained as we road through.
“A lot of people want to call it a tunnel, but it's not,” she said.
Instead, it’s a “portal” or “cut-and-cover."
"Because what happens is, the train will enter and the front of it will be out of the portal before the back end is underneath it,” Green said.
For some of these riders, the Blue Line extension is the solution to a nightmare commute. Alexis Cureton currently spends two hours on a bus and walking to get from her home south of uptown to her work in northeast Charlotte. She says the Blue Line will cut her commute in half.
“Maybe an hour, maybe just under an hour, since I'm coming from Scaleybark," Cureton said. "So I can't wait to get a little bit more sleep before I come to work.”
19 MILES TOTAL
The southern section of the Lynx Blue Line opened in 2007 and runs from uptown to I-485.
With the extension, the whole line will now be about 19 miles.
How long will it take?
“So the Blue Line extension from about 9th Street to UNC Charlotte will run you about 22 to 25 minutes, and the whole thing will be about 50 to 55 minutes,” CATS spokeswoman Hillary Ryan said. “And the fare will stay the same - $2.20 one way, $4.40 round trip.”
The light rail extension will certainly be an option for commuters. But NoDa resident Paul Wood said it also will connect his family to recreation and entertainment.
"Both my wife and I ride our bikes everywhere," Wood said. "So when this opens and allows us the option of combining light rail and the bikeability of the city, you know it's going to just change the city for us."
The test runs since January have mostly gone smoothly, though on Wednesday afternoon CATS reported a problem with crossing gate arms. The transit agency said something was causing all gate arms at along the extension to remain down. The problem was repaired by 5:25 p.m.
On Tuesday, Green told WFAE that drivers along the new section need to be cautious about crossings. “They’re either going up too far on the gates in their car, or people are not paying attention and walking around gates that are lowered,” Green said. “So one of the things that we really try to get across is that safety message, and that folks need to obey all traffic signs and signals so that they can be safe.”
Construction on the extension began in 2013. It had been expected to open last August, but it was delayed seven months by what officials called "construction coordination challenges." It's now scheduled to open Friday, March 16, in time for NCAA basketball tournament games uptown.