Tens of thousands rode Charlotte's new light rail for free during its debut weekend. On the first day passengers had to pay, ridership dropped to less than 5,000.
That was less than the projected first-year weekday ridership of 9,100 on the Lynx Blue Line train. But Charlotte Area Transit System officials expect the number to increase as more people become accustomed to using the system.
That prediction seems reasonable. Light rail is something new for the region, and it may take time to catch on. But this is a long-term process, and a reliable mass transit system is a necessary component to inevitable growth not only in Charlotte but also in York County and the other counties ringing the Queen City.
Some first-day riders said the trip took longer than expected. It takes 25 minutes to travel the 9.6-mile route.
But there were benefits, especially financial ones. Commuters talked about not having to pay to park downtown, which can be costly. They also saved on gas and wear and tear on their cars, which could be parked free at one of the 3,500 spaces reserved for CATS riders along the route.
The city also is working to integrate 20 modified or new bus routes to feed people into the light-rail line. That would make the trip even more thrifty.
But beyond these tangible benefits, riders also revel in letting someone else do the driving and in not having to fight rush-hour traffic every day. Instead, they can read, relax or watch the scenery roll by.
CATS officials hope the train will average 9,100 weekday trips the first year. They estimate that will grow to 18,100 by 2025.
The fact that planners are thinking 17 years ahead is an indication of how this system is likely to evolve. Ridership will increase as homes and businesses are built along the route to take advantage of proximity to mass transportation.
It would be a mistake to think of this as strictly a Charlotte phenomenon. York County should be thinking now about how to bring light rail across the state line and other ways to enhance local access to public transportation.
And, as the Lynx Blue Line demonstrates, this is not simply a 9.6-mile train ride but rather an integrated transit system that includes buses and park-and-ride lots along the route. If York County is to remain ahead of the curve, local officials will have to begin thinking about how the different pieces of the mass transit puzzle might fit together here as well.
Charlotte's new light rail line -- which had to survive the barbs of skeptics and a threat to cut off funding -- should be just the first step in a burgeoning mass transportation system for the region. We hope York County will be a part of that.
York County should look ahead to how it can be a part of mass transit system.