Lynx line is the CATS' meow

Portland’s long reign as the go-to city for great examples of what streetcar and light rail development can do may be in jeopardy.

On the other side of North America, Charlotte’s Lynx Blue Line light rail system is spurring at least $1 billion in new mixed-use development along its 9.6-mile route from 7th Street in Uptown (which is downtown Charlotte renamed by a 1980s marketing campaign) and I-485/South Boulevard, just this side of the North/South Carolina state line.

It’s the linchpin of the Charlotte Area Transit System's ambitious transit plan that will expand the Lynx system, plus add streetcars, suburban commuter rail and even bus rapid transit to the area’s transit mix between today and 2030. Given what about 50 attendees of CNU’s Transportation Summit 2008 saw on Nov. 6, Charlotteans have a green signal ahead.

Trains operate on 15-minute headways during off-peak hours, and 7.5-minute headways during rush hours. As of August, Lynx was carrying an average of 16,936 daily weekday riders – well above the original first-year projections of 9,100 average daily weekday trips.

The Siemens cars, built in Sacramento, Calif., can seat 68 and hold another 168 strap hangers. They glide at speeds up to 55 miles per hour along rails laid on concrete ties and are powered by 750-volt DC delivered via simple catenary wires. Overhead wire support poles between 7th Street and New Bern are capped with painted gold crowns (Charlotte being the Queen City, and all), while all stations are adorned with art produced by local artists. At non-center platform stations, the fences separating the tracks are adorned with stylized leaves whose vein patterns are actually the local street grid around the station, which is marked with a circle.

Along the line (a formerly unused Norfolk Southern Railroad branch), a walking/cycling path parallels the tracks, except where Lynx crosses I-277. And from Uptown to the South End neighborhood, where empty lots or old factory buildings once stood, new apartments, condominiums and townhouses abut the tracks – many putting their best faces toward the light rail route.

That lesson sank deeply in Frederick Bartol, of Madison, Wis., who attended the Summit on behalf of the Dane Alliance for Rational Transportation to collect information on what makes a light rail line like Lynx successful. The tendency is to think of projects individually, rather than looking at the line itself, nearby mixed-use development, zoning, bus rerouting and infrastructure improvements, as a whole.

“At one level, it seems obvious. But how do you do that?” Bartol said.

Keith Parker, CATS’ CEO, said work on improving Charlotte’s transit system began in 1998, when Mecklenburg County voters approved a half-cent sales tax for transit – without specific plans. CATS decided to use two-thirds of this new revenue to augment and expand the existing bus system, he said. CATS officials met with municipalities, civic and community groups, and asked, “What do we need to do to get you to ride our services?” The answers helped guide CATS’ approach to revamping routes, adding express routes from suburban areas throughout Mecklenburg and adjacent counties to Uptown. Express buses, for example, feature cushioned, reclining seats and overhead luggage racks. Local routes now feed into Lynx stations. The Gold Rush “trolley” bus circulates through Uptown and adjacent neighborhoods, for free.

It worked. CATS’ ridership since 1998 has soared 67 percent, to 19.75 million riders in Fiscal Year 2007. Moreover, the fact that Charlotte’s government operates on a stringent business model helps keep CATS and the city’s Department of Transportation are on the same page regarding the Lynx line and adjacent development, Parker said.

Larry Gould, senior director of operations analysis for New York City Transit, was likewise impressed at Charlotte’s ability to get all agencies working together, and to have each department be aware of the others’ needs.

“I’d like to know how they do it,” Gould said. “The entire product, from transit-oriented development to the vehicles and the entire route … appears to be high quality.”

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Norfolk, Va.: We should have it so good

(Hat tip to The Overhead Wire.)

UPDATE: Make that $1.8 billion in TOD spurred by the Lynx Blue Line.

That's the figure reported in a Dec. 5 Virginian-Pilot story about what Bob Morgan, president of Charlotte's Chamber of Commerce, said Norfolk, Va., can gain with its 7.4-mile, $232.1 million light rail line, The Tide. Currently under construction, the line is scheduled for a 2010 launch.

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