Light rail finds fewer riders willing to pay

A southbound train glides into the station for several riders Monday. The first commuting day on the Lynx train line saw a steady stream of riders, especially uptown at the CTC/Arena station during evening rush hour.
A southbound train glides into the station for several riders Monday. The first commuting day on the Lynx train line saw a steady stream of riders, especially uptown at the CTC/Arena station during evening rush hour.

CHARLOTTE -- After tens of thousands rode light rail for free in a blockbuster opening weekend, the Lynx Blue Line train carried far fewer people on its first day of paid service Monday.

The Charlotte Area Transit System estimated Monday afternoon that the trains would carry between 4,500 and 5,000 passenger trips by the end of the first day of service.

That's less than the projected first-year weekday ridership of 9,100. But CATS chief executive Ton Tober said he was pleased and expects ridership to rise.

"We had a good first day given the weather," Tober said. "The biggest issue we had is that some ticket vending machines weren't working."

The other glitch Monday was in integrating 20 modified or new bus routes that are designed to feed people into the light-rail line, Tober said.

CATS' opening weekend of more than 100,000 trips showed much of Charlotte is excited about light rail. Now people have to be convinced that it will improve their commute, saving them time or money. A one-way trip costs $1.30. It takes about 25 minutes to travel the 9.6-mile route.

Deanna Hellis, a contract worker at Duke Energy, took a free ride on the train Saturday, and came back again Monday morning. When she woke up and saw it was raining, she thought about skipping the train and driving uptown.

But she drove to the I-485/South Boulevard station from her home in Fort Mill, and said the entire trip by car and train took 10 minutes longer than by car alone. But she plans to ride again.

"It saved me a lot of money," she said. "I was paying $10 a day to park. Now I will pay $36 a month for a (discounted) pass."

Anne Marie Neely, who works at Bank of America uptown, caught the train at the I-485/South Boulevard station at 7 a.m. It took her 20 minutes to get to the station from her home in the Ballantyne area. The train ride was another 25 minutes, which was longer than she expected.

"I was 30 minutes late for work, but according to the schedule, I should get here on time," says Neely, a Detroit native.

"I'm not complaining. I really like this ride. I love that I don't have to put up with traffic in the morning. I'll try it again, and see if it's on time."

CATS is hoping to attract a significant number of commuters who had been taking their cars.

There was plenty of parking on the first day, however. CATS has seven park-and-ride lots along the line, with 3,500 spaces total. By late morning, CATS said there were about 500 cars at the lots.

Denver and Dallas opened light-rail lines last decade, and both carried more people than originally projected in their first year of service.

CATS has estimated the train will average 9,100 weekday trips, and that will grow to 18,100 by 2025.

Monday was the end of a year wait for Bank of America employee Jerod Laughlin, who bought a home near the line, and caught a train at the New Bern station.

"For the past year, I've been either driving into work or taking my motorcycle, depending on the weather, and it was $45 a month to park and $25 to $30 a week for gas," he says.

"Today, it was a 200-foot walk to the station and it was a nine-minute ride. I'm happy. I've lived in San Francisco and Washington and these trains are as nice as theirs, if not nicer.

"My only complaint is about ticket options. I'd like a three-month or a six-month pass."

CATS offers weekly, monthly and daily passes that allow for unlimited rides on buses and trains.

Many of Monday's rail riders used to ride the No. 12 bus on South Boulevard. Most were happy with the rail upgrade, for at least part of their journey.

Anthony McLendon of Wilmore, a frequent bus rider, took light rail from uptown to the East/West Boulevard station.

"I like this much more because it's faster," he said.

A significant portion of the line's traffic Monday was off-peak travel -- people going north to the Charlotte Transportation Center to catch a bus. Those trains were often as crowded as southbound trains leaving uptown.

The Lynx Blue doesn't have turnstiles at its stations, and operates on a proof-of-payment system. On an 8-15 a.m. train leaving I-485/South Boulevard for uptown, one of five CATS fare inspectors asked passengers to show their tickets.

Passengers planning to ride light rail should bring cash or coins. The ticket kiosks don't yet take credit or debit cards.

Tom Donaldson, an uptown attorney, walked from his home to the East/West Boulevard station and caught a train to work.

"I thought it was smooth," said Tom Donaldson, an attorney who works uptown.

Donaldson represents a market that CATS needs.

"I'm not a bus rider," he said. "have three cars, actually."

AP-NY-11-26-07 2000EST