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Modern Transportation for the Virginias

Charlotte’s New Light Rail System Offers a Pattern for Virginia

From VARP’s On Track newsletter, spring 2008

By VARP board member and Secretary Dick Peacock

This article previously appeared in the Charlottesville Hook and the Manassas Journal-Messenger.

On Monday, Nov. 19, a ribbon-cutting ceremony opened the Blue Line of Charlotte’s Lynx light rail operation. Charlotte’s mayor, Pat McCrory, called this event “a monumental moment in the history of Charlotte.” Federal, state, city, and county officials heaped praise on one another for this accomplishment. The magic moment came when invited guests sitting in the gleaming blue-and-white rail cars heard and felt the steel wheel hitting the steel rail on 9.6 miles of double track. The line starts near the southern edge of the city at the intersection of I-485 and South Boulevard, going north to 7th Street in uptown Charlotte. Riders will have easy access to the Bank of America Stadium, Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, Bobcats Arena, Convention Center, Charlotte Transportation Center, and tens of thousands of jobs.

On Nov. 24, the public hit the rails for the first time. They received free rides to “test drive” the system. “This is your life, this is your community and the Lynx Blue Line is your train,” stated Ronald J. Tober, the Executive Officer of the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS). “I’m glad you’re coming along for the ride.” Many basketball fans rode the line to the Bobcats Arena to see the Bobcats play the Boston Celtics. On Nov. 25, numerous football fans traveled on the system to watch the Carolina Panthers play the New Orleans Saints.

On Nov. 26, riders started paying fares. What happened next was absolutely amazing. CATS had estimated that it would take a year to reach 9,100 average daily riders. During the first seven days of paid operations, average daily ridership soared to 12,300. Strong midday and special event patronage pushed the numbers to levels higher than anticipated. Some riders even reported standing room only during the Friday lunch hour.

The initial success of light rail in Charlotte proves that a well-designed system can attract substantial numbers of people to rail transportation in any city in the Southeast. Norfolk’s light rail system could experience similar success in 2010. And Charlotte’s success should encourage the cities of Arlington, Alexandria, Charlottesville, Richmond, and Roanoke to consider light rail too and grab some of that success.