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Charlotte is the among fastest growing cities on the East Coast. The population clocks in at 650,000 and is steadily increasing, and about 1.4 million people live in the metropolitan area. Eight Fortune 500 companies also call Charlotte home, including Bank of America and Wachovia, which help make Charlotte the country’s second-largest banking center.
That’s good news for the city’s economy, and bad news for air quality and commuters dealing with traffic congestion. But with a new light-rail line in service and plans for several other transit corridors on the drawing board, officials at the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) are hoping to help chip away at mounting highway gridlock. Officials also believe the agency can help play a role in Charlotte’s growth both by providing transit-rail services and attracting transit-oriented development (TOD).
“I think the things being done here in Charlotte are being done at a very good time,” says Ron Tober, CATS’ chief executive officer who retired last month. “The city is still growing, so we’re able to use public transit investments to shape how the city’s going to grow in the future. I think light rail is going to serve this community well.”
CATS will soon find out. In November, the agency opened the LYNX Blue Line, Charlotte’s first foray into the light-rail realm outside of a two-mile trolley line.
The project gained steam shortly after Tober was hired in late 1999 by the newly created Metropolitan Transit Commission (MTC), which governed the use of a half-cent public transit sales tax approved by voters in 1998. In 2000, CATS was created and the MTC completed a major investment study on the South Corridor (now known as the Blue Line) and decided to proceed with the project.
The 9.6-mile line runs from Interstate 485 at South Boulevard to downtown Charlotte. The MTC chose the corridor because of available right of way (in 1996, the city purchased about four miles of unused right of way from Norfolk Southern Railway). The corridor also parallels a highly congested section of Interstate 77 and presented redevelopment opportunities, Tober says.
After spending about four years completing engineering work and final design, CATS, which also operates Charlotte’s bus system, launched construction on the 15-station line in early 2005. The $462.7 million project was funded through a Full Funding Grant Agreement from the Federal Transit Administration, and with state and local dollars.
Snags along the way
The line’s originally scheduled April 2007 opening was pushed back to November, largely because NS — which operates a freight line that runs adjacent to about five miles of the Blue Line — didn’t initially provide CATS with enough flagmen during construction, says Tober. The Class I required that flagmen be present in case Blue Line construction spilled over onto the freight line.
“We agreed to pay for the flagmen, but they were only going to give us four, which wasn’t enough to accommodate our construction schedule,” says Tober. “It delayed contractors’ work on one segment by more than three months. We finally convinced them to give us two more.”
The delays were forgotten on Nov. 24, when CATS opened the line to the public. After two days of free introductory rides, the agency launched revenue service.
If the first month of service is any indication, CATS will have no problem meeting its goal of 9,100 daily riders in the first year. As of mid-December, the line was logging more than 12,000 passengers a day. CATS’ 16 S70 light-rail vehicles, manufactured by Siemens Transportation Systems Inc., can carry more than 18,000 people, so there’s additional capacity to play with, says Tober.
The agency likely will need it. CATS officials expect ridership to continue growing as land around stations is developed. In 2003, the city amended its zoning code to include TOD zoning districts and issued guidelines for developing office, residential and mixed-use space within a half-mile of stations.
“We’ve put a big emphasis on linking together land use and transit, and that finds its way through all of our policies — station plans, zoning districts, really all of our guiding documents,” says Tina Votaw, CATS’ TOD specialist who assumed the post after the agency created the position in 2005.
The emphasis on TOD is paying off in terms of property value. As of last summer, about $1.9 billion worth of development had been proposed for locations near Blue Line stations, according to CATS estimates. The majority of the projects under construction or on the drawing board through 2011 are residential properties — fitting for the Charlotte area, where the growing banking industry has sparked an employment and population boom that’s expected to continue for the next 30 years, say Votaw.
However, high demand for residential properties are propelling developers to far exceed CATS’ recommended 20 dwelling units per acre.
“We’re seeing 50 to 90 units an acre,” says Votaw.
Among the TOD projects: Summit Grandview, which includes 266 residential units and 70,000 square feet of office and retail space; Morehead Square, which calls for 296,000 square feet of office space, an 886-space parking deck and 40 condominiums; the Village of South End, which includes 113 residential units and 23,000 square feet of office and retail space; and the New Bern Station area, which will feature 96 residential units and 13,000 square feet of office and retail space.
“The right kind of development revitalizes and energizes your station areas, and you want people to be able to live or work within those areas because that builds ridership,” says Votaw. “It takes advantage of what you’ve already invested.”
Part of a bigger plan
CATS officials also believe TOD will play an important role in the agency’s expansion plan, which call for building a “hub and spoke” transit system with five transit corridors serving downtown Charlotte and surrounding suburbs.
Originally called the 2025 plan, the blueprint was updated last summer and is now known as the 2030 plan, which prioritizes the remaining four corridors.
Next up: an 11-mile Blue Line extension that would run northeast of Charlotte along Interstate 85 and serve the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and a 25-mile commuter-rail line that would run north of Charlotte to Mooresville on an NS branch with light freight traffic. The north corridor is scheduled to open in 2011 and the northeast corridor, in 2013.
The 2030 plan also calls for adding 16 miles of streetcar and 14 miles of bus rapid transit lines.
CATS will be building its next transit corridors under the leadership of a new executive director and CEO, Keith Parker, who succeeded Tober.
Formerly Charlotte’s assistant city manager, Parker joined CATS on Dec. 22. But he’s no stranger to the agency. Parker served as chief operating officer and deputy director from 2000 to 2004. He previously held similar positions with the Clark County Transit Authority in Vancouver, Wash.; and Greater Richmond Transit Co. in Richmond, Va.
His experience will be essential in guiding CATS as it operates the new line and prepares to build several more. And CATS will be essential in helping Charlotte plan for — and serve — a growing population.