Light rail encounters unexpected problem: Packed parking deck

CHARLOTTE -- CATS, which once worried whether people would ride light rail, now finds itself with a much different problem: It is running out of parking.

With ridershop topping projections, the Lynx Blue Line's 1,120-space parking deck at the Interstate 485/South Boulevard station is filling up consistently, and drivers are circling for spots.

Now the Charlotte Area Transit System is studying ways to add more spaces, perhaps by expanding a small surface lot or re-striping some spaces for compact cars.

CATS chief executive Keith Parker said he wants to avoid building a second deck for as long as possible because it would cost the transit system millions and eat into its budget for other smaller, countywide improvements.

When the Lynx first opened in late November, the deck was one-third full on most days.

It was very different Wednesday morning.

"I never had so much trouble getting a space before," said Dave Lavoie, a weekly rider who was on a 10:15 a.m. inbound train Wednesday morning. "I had to circle around, and I think I found the last space in the deck."

Lavoie said that earlier this year, he could park on the first row.

The next station to the north after I-485/South Boulevard -- Sharon Road West -- also is often full. Its parking area has 188 spaces. The other five park-and-ride lots still have plenty of room.

The number of cars at Lynx park-and-rides has more than tripled since its November opening, from about 500 cars to roughly 1,600, according to sample counts by the Observer. It's unclear whether the trend will continue this summer.

Transit ridership sometimes decreases in the summer as people take vacations, said Jean Leier, a CATS spokeswoman. However, some analysts have projected that gas prices could approach $4 a gallon this summer, which might push more people to public transportation.

Parker said CATS won't charge people to park, as some transit systems do. "To create another barrier is not something we want to do at this point," he said.

Lynx ridership has so far exceeded the first-year projections of 9,100 average weekday trips in its first year. The Lynx has drawn big crowds for special events uptown, but the increasing number of cars at park-and-ride lots suggests more people are making the train part of their routine.

CATS, in theory, has enough money to build a new parking deck at the I-485/South Boulevard station from revenue from the half-cent sales tax for transit. But that would require shifting resources, and possibly postponing or killing other projects.

Parker said he's hesitant to change the budget because other areas of the county have been promised capital improvements.

The contract for the I-485 deck was $22 million. After Hurricane Katrina, bids came in higher than expected and CATS cut 300 spaces from the project to save money.