Photo courtesy of Michael Trznadel
In November 2007, Charlotte, NC, unveiled the first light rail project in North Carolina history. The 9.6-mile LYNX Blue Line, connecting Charlotte’s suburban South End to its downtown financial district, is a regional strategy to address growing congestion problems in the greater Charlotte area. Amazingly, within its first year of operation, ridership averaged 16,000 daily weekday trips – attaining nearly twice the federal projections roughly 15 years ahead of schedule. The light rail line also proved to be a viable alternative to automobile travel in the city and Charlotte residents took advantage of it. A 2009 Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) survey indicated 72 percent of LYNX riders did not use public transportation prior to its completion.
Unfortunately, the project was not built to accommodate as many passengers as it attracted. At the time, to qualify for federal funding, projects needed to meet cost-effectiveness criteria. Charlotte officials had originally planned to build the line with three-car trains, but the project was scaled back to two-car trains to score a cost-effectiveness rating worthy of federal funding. Now, the City of Charlotte needs to go back and implement what it originally planned to accommodate the rising demand for the LYNX Blue Line – from a transit perspective, a good problem to have. The upgrades to the existing track and platforms to support three rail cars will add $67 million to the project.
Going forward, the City of Charlotte is planning an 11-mile extension to the LYNX Blue Line. The plan again calls for a three-car system, and hopefully the current changes being made to the nation’s transportation strategy will allow for the extension project to receive federal funding and be built as planned.
The U.S. Dept. of Transportation announced earlier this year that the new transportation strategy will take a more comprehensive look at how transportation projects affect the “livability,” or quality of life, of an area. This shift in philosophy will change the way transportation projects are chosen for federal funding, widening the scope beyond just a cost-effectiveness formula to an equation with other significant variables, such as impact on the environment and economic development. Inclusion of these additional variables will help to identify the true benefits and costs of transportation projects, making sure projects like Charlotte’s LYNX Blue Line are built correctly the first time around.
This article was featured in Talking Transit, MPC's bi-weekly e-newsletter. To sign up to receive Talking Transit, please visit http://www.metroplanning.org/signup.html.