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Charlotte's new light rail extension connects students and citizens to their city

UNCC Light rail.JPG
Charlotte light rail's 9th street station. Photo courtesy of Charlotte City Council member Greg Phipps.

Charlotte's new light rail extension opened March 16, and UNC Charlotte students are excited to be connected with uptown entertainment and internships.

Charlotte City Councilman Greg Phipps said the light rail was very popular during its inaugural weekend, but added that the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) waited to begin official data collection until after the initial excitement had died down. He said they will be able to get a more accurate reading of long-term popularity by April or May, but Phipps expects ridership to exceed expectations. 

“I don’t know if it’ll die down, but I know right now people are really using it just because, you know, it’s brand new and the excitement is there,” Kintali said. 

“We got 11 additional station stops on this extension, six of which were in my district,” he said. “In the summer of 2014 I think I hand-delivered about three or four hundred letters to different businesses around, giving them a heads up that the construction was getting ready to start, if (there were) problems with who to contact and stuff like that.”

The construction was frustrating for some businesses, Phipps said, as road closures and other disruptions may have reduced their sales, but there has already been a lot of development associated with the light rail. He said property values rose along the line, and new apartment complexes and offices popped up.

“It’s opened up a plethora of opportunities for businesses to really be able to engage and expand their service products and things, and it’s so far so good,” he said.

Phipps said some of the light rail ridership will likely draw from the bus system, which he said is being realigned to handle traffic more efficiently and to easily connect people from other areas with the light rail. 

Light Rail’s Impact on UNCC

Betty Doster, special assistant to the UNCC Chancellor, said the semester bill for UNCC students will increase by $25 starting in the fall of 2018, but this will cover unlimited, free use of the light rail system. Faculty can pay $75 per year for the same privilege.

Doster also anticipates the light rail enabling many students to access more internships and volunteer opportunities, and orientation counselors may use the train as part of orientation to introduce new students to the area. 

“We are 9.2 miles from center city, but people think we’re even further,” Doster said. “It takes three interstates to get from uptown to our main campus, and it’s been called the ten most harrowing miles in Charlotte. And now it’s connected by the light rail.”

Meera Purohit, a UNCC first-year, said she and her friends mostly ride the light rail for recreation but thinks that it would be useful to access uptown internships and to avoid traffic in the future. 

“I think it’s really helpful for a lot of students, too, because I don’t have my car on campus this year, so I was really kind of stuck in the dorms,” Purohit said. “Now I’m able to go out and explore without relying on other people, or Uber or anything.”

Doster said the light rail line now connects two of UNCC’s campuses, making it easier for faculty and staff to get back and forth. The extension also connects the university to the North Davidson district and uptown entertainment centers like the Bank of America Stadium. 

Tharun Kintali, a UNCC sophomore, said the light rail offers an easy, cheaper alternative for students to go uptown compared to driving their cars, paying for gas and finding parking.  

“I was in uptown Charlotte the other day, and it cost me $21 to park,” Doster said. “That’s prohibitive for a student that maybe is in an internship with a company. Most companies aren’t going to pay the parking for an internship.”

While UNC-Chapel Hill has Franklin Street, Kintali said UNCC does not have a similar concentrated location for entertainment, nightlife and dining. 

“North Tryon is trying to be that way, but it’s not anywhere near that yet,” he said. “In a lot of ways I feel like this is going to bridge the gap for that kind of campus life or things to do around campus that we just don’t have access to but now we do.”

In addition, Doster said the light rail offers an important alternative to driving, preventing people from drinking and driving. 

Similarities to Durham-Orange Light Rail

Damon Seils, Carrboro Board of Aldermen member, said he is a regularly uses the bus system to get from Carrboro to Durham and believes that light rail has the potential to augment economic growth across the Triangle. 

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“To me, what’s really compelling about so much of the job access issue is that we’re talking about transit infrastructure that will link the two biggest job centers in the region and link three major research universities: UNC, Duke, North Carolina Central,” he said. “The project in that sense really plays to our community’s strengths, which are its existing job creating engine in the communities and their academic and research engines” 

Seils said the Durham-Orange corridor is one of the most heavily-traveled commute corridors in North Carolina, and this is unlikely to change. He said a major goal of light rail is to mitigate the inevitable increase in congestion that comes with population growth.

The light rail would open up the world to students who otherwise would be unable or unwilling to explore the areas around their universities, he said.

“It’s the future not only of me having reliable, relatively frequent, fast transportation to and from my job, but also people like me and you and other folks in Carrboro and Chapel Hill being able to travel to Durham to go to a show, or for people in Durham to come to Carrboro to see a show at the Cat’s Cradle," he said. "Our communities are already so connected. This is just a way of doubling down on that.”

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