Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Transformative transit, still on track

Mayor Anthony Foxx, (L-R) U.S. Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff before Tuesday ceremony

In reality, they signed the agreement 30 minutes before the public ceremony. I imagine no one wanted to take any chances with the legalities.

But at 10 a.m. today, with speeches and congratulations, dignitaries from Charlotte, Raleigh and Washington on Tuesday made formal the U.S. Federal Transit Administration's commitment of $580 million to help extend the Lynx Blue Line from Seventh Street uptown northeast to the UNC Charlotte campus. The signing of the full funding grant agreement, as it's called, is something of a formality, but its significance can hardly be overstated. FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff, in town for the event, predicted ridership on the Blue Line would double. I think that's underestimating it.

Mayor Anthony Foxx greets N.C. Transportation Secretary Gene Conti
The 9.3-mile Blue Line Extension, when it opens in 2017, will connect the heart of a city of 750,000 to a campus of some 30,000 people. To compare, 30,000 is bigger than the city of Statesville and roughly the size of Monroe, Mooresville or Salisbury (all 33,000). And the university's plans call for continued growth. In other words, there is a huge destination at the end of the Blue Line Extension that dwarfs what lies at the southern end of the Blue Line: the town of Pineville (population 7,678). OK, to be fair there are a lot of people living near, but not in Pineville. Still, in my view the part of the city near the BLE terminus is larger and more robust.

In addition to the UNC Charlotte campus, the university city area holds a regional hospital (Carolinas Medical Center-University), as well as stores, houses, apartments and offices. It is a big enough destination that it has its own Charlotte Chamber chapter.

Among those 30,000 university students, faculty and staff are some who already travel regularly between the main campus and the university's Center City Building, less than a block from today's ceremonies at what will become the Ninth Street Station. (Disclosure: I am one of those staff members and was disappointed when I asked if the new section could be finished way ahead of its scheduled 2017 and was told, "No.") It's fair to predict that as transportation gets easier, even more of those faculty, staff and students will make that journey even more often.

Also in the crowd was CATS' first CEO, Ron Tober
Charlotte is home to a major state university, yet the university, for much of its existence, wasn't physically integrated into the rest of the city. That has been changing in recent years, and with the new light rail line it will change dramatically. Students will be able to travel easily from campus where the station will be near the Student Union and a large cluster of dormitories to South End, uptown and points in between, notably the NoDa neighborhood of bars, restaurants and renovated mill houses. Heck, they can even travel to the outskirts of Pineville. And people in other parts of the city will be able to travel more easily to the main university campus without having to fight interstate highway traffic.

The university has been eager for the light rail project, granting a right-of-way worth $4 million. "UNC Charlotte – like CATS,  the federal government, the citizens of Mecklenburg County and the State of North Carolina – is deeply and directly invested in this project,” Chancellor Phil Dubois said in a prepared statement. (He was out of town for his son's wedding and couldn't attend Tuesday's ceremony.)

In addition, the city's hope is that transit-oriented development will start to reshape some of the more bedraggled sections of North Tryon Street that stretch from Eastway Drive north to near the university. If the light rail's South Corridor is any predictor, it will. For my part, I say let the work begin.

Blue Line Extension facts

Stations: 11
Projected average weekday ridership by 2035: 24,500
Projected travel time from I-485/South Boulevard to UNC Charlotte: 47 minutes
Funding breakdown for $1.16 million project: Federal money $580 million, N.C. DOT money $299 million, Charlotte Area Transit System money $250 million, City of Charlotte money and in-kind spending $31 million.
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