Apr 24, 2024 - News

Gold Line streetcar extension advances despite low ridership

Gold Line train

Photo: Alexandria Sands/Axios

An effort to more than double the Gold Line route — a fare-free streetcar that sometimes runs nearly empty — is moving forward despite sloping ridership.

Why it matters: As part of an ongoing planning effort for the Gold Line's third phase, the Charlotte Area Transit System is studying ways to drum up streetcar ridership and improve reliability. That could mean giving the streetcar priority at streetlights, or bypassing stops where no one is getting on or off.

  • "There's some newer technologies out there that we're going to be looking at," Gold Line project manager Jim Fatula tells Axios.
  • It's unclear whether those changes would have to wait until the extension starts construction. Fatula says CATS will consider expediting them into the current operations.

Driving the news: Charlotte City Council hesitantly agreed in 2022 to spend $4.3 million on refreshing 2011 designs for the streetcar's next phase.

  • Members were skeptical of the line's return on investment.

The big picture: The Gold Line could eventually span 10 miles and over 30 stops. Currently, the streetcar connects four miles, with 17 stops between French Street near Johnson C. Smith University and Sunnyside Avenue by Plaza Midwood.

  • The third phase would add another six miles in opposite directions. It would include up to 17 more stations, stretching down Central Avenue near the old Eastland Mall site and along Beatties Ford Road to Rosa Parks Community Transit Center.
Gold Line extension map
CATS will reconsider whether these stops are optimally placed. Courtesy of CATS

Flashback: The Gold Line was the "biggest political football" of Anthony Foxx's career when he was mayor from 2009-2013, Charlotte magazine wrote. The project was intended to spur economic growth on the east and west sides.

  • But opponents objected to its cost, calling it the "train to nowhere."

Zoom out: The Gold Line extension could improve Charlotte's overall transit system. It would serve many passengers who take two of CATS' most popular bus routes, the 9 and 7, relieving crowded buses.

The other side: It costs taxpayers $18.90 to move a passenger one mile on the Gold Line, according to a 2022 Federal Transit Administration report, as WFAE reported.

  • Ridership has decreased by 9.4% over the past year, even though total ridership is up across CATS' other services, according to Metropolitan Transit Commission documents.
  • Around 1,700 people take the line daily, compared to the Blue Line's 16,000 passengers.
  • The Gold Line is commonly criticized for how it follows car traffic, and it's powerless to move around parked cars and red lights. During this study, CATS will look at solving issues with getting around obstacles.

Yes, but: CATS recently trimmed its headways from 30 minutes to 20 minutes as it recovers from an operator shortage. Over the past year, the transit agency improved its job vacancy rate from about 20% to 10%.

  • "As people see that it's more useful, I think those ridership numbers are going to come up," Fatula says.

What they're saying: Council member Malcolm Graham, who represents part of west Charlotte, says he's interested in the line extension, as was promised to the Beatties Ford Road community. But a lot depends on the outcome of the study and pinpointing funding.

  • "Does the ridership justify the expansion? Does it provide a boost for economic development along the corridor?" Graham says. "There'll be a number of conversations moving forward, and certainly ridership and costs are going to be probably one of those things that surface to the top."

By the numbers: CATS projects the Gold Line will increase property tax revenues and, by 2035, spur the development of around 6,600 new multifamily units, 3.8 million square feet of office and 250,000 square feet of new retail.

What's next: By next year, CATS aims to understand better the project scope and cost, how it will be funded and the construction timeline.

CATS is hosting public meetings this week to collect feedback on the existing streetcar and future extension:

Veterans Park– Indoor Pavilion

  • Thursday, April 25 from 5:30-7:30pm
  • 2136 Central Ave.

Virtual Public Meeting

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