Along a grassy stretch of railroad track in downtown Charlotte, a groundbreaking ceremony Thursday, July 18, marked another important step in bringing light rail to UNC Charlotte.
Federal, state and local government officials, along with business and community leaders and the public attended the event, which signaled that construction would soon begin on the northeast extension of the Charlotte Area Transit System’s (CATS) LYNX Blue Line. It will link UNC Charlotte’s main campus, students and faculty with UNC Charlotte Center City and businesses, organizations and cultural groups in the heart of Uptown.
“This project will create thousands of jobs during construction, create economic opportunity by connecting the city’s financial, high tech and cultural centers with the thriving UNC Charlotte campus and give commuters an alternative to sitting in traffic on I-85 and U.S. 29,” said Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff.
Chancellor Philip L. Dubois has been a longtime advocate for the Blue Line Extension, as noted by N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory in his remarks. The governor said during his tenure as mayor of Charlotte, he recalled meeting with the chancellor about the light rail extension, and Dubois said “bring it on.”
The chancellor and University trustees championed the plan for light rail to enter campus, and Dubois’ leadership was instrumental in the granting of easements and improvements totaling more than $5 million to allow CATS to build on state-owned property at the main campus.
"The reason we all have worked together so hard, so well, and for so long is that we have understood that the benefits to the city were too large and too significant not too … both in the job creation that would be necessary just to construct the rail line and also in the long-term potential for development along the northeast corridor,” Dubois said at the ceremony. “Indeed, back in 2009, it was estimated that the long-term value of property development as a result of light rail would be more than $2 billion when inflation was factored in, and as high as $3 billion considering future property revaluations. The result is a projected $500 million in additional property tax revenue and $740 million in sales taxes through 2035. That is why our refrain on light rail has been consistent. It cannot be thought of simply as a cost. It will be one of our most important investments.”
CATS officials estimate that the light rail extension will create approximately 7,600 jobs during construction and more than double total light rail ridership with 18,000-plus additional riders each weekday when the extension opens in 2017. The 9.3-mile extension will add service along what will become an 18.6-mile light rail corridor in Northeast Charlotte and will help to reduce congestion along Interstate 85 and U.S. Route 29, where commercial and residential growth is expected to continue.
Two stations will serve the University – one just south of the Charlotte Research Institute campus on North Tryon Street and the other across the street from the North Village residence halls.
Dubois noted the connectivity aspect of light rail was an important factor – not only for students, faculty and staff, but for the greater Charlotte community. The extension will give college football fans access to the region’s only Division I football program, as well as other athletic events, performing arts and other community activities hosted on UNC Charlotte’s main campus.
Funding appears set for the project. Announced last year, a state full funding grant agreement will provide 25 percent of the monies for the LYNX Blue Line Extension from Ninth Street to the main UNC Charlotte campus. The extension would include 11 light rail stations and four parking facilities. Construction of the approximate $1.16 billion project is scheduled to begin fall 2013 with operational service expected in 2017.
Photo: Gov. McCrory, Peter Rogoff, Chancellor Dubois, Commissioner Cotham and Carolyn Flowers (by Daniel Coston).