ESSAY- Tooting Charlotte's horn: NC example bodes well for new train

On November 19, a ribbon-cutting ceremony opened the Blue Line of Charlotte's Lynx light rail operation. Charlotte's mayor, Pat McCrory, called the event a "monumental moment" in the city's history. But the really monumental– or magic– moment came when invited guests sitting in the gleaming blue and white rail cars saw, heard, and felt the steel wheel hitting the steel rail on 9.6 miles of double track. The line starts near the southern edge of the city at the I-485/South Boulevard intersection and heads north to 7th Street in uptown Charlotte.

Riders now have easy access to the Bank of America Stadium, Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, Bobcats Arena, Convention Center, Charlotte Transportation Center– and to tens of thousands of jobs. 

Five days later, the public hit the rails for the first time with free rides to "test drive" the system.

 "I'm glad you're coming along for the ride," said the director of the Charlotte Area Transit System to the riders. "This is your life, this is your community, and the Lynx Blue Line is your train."

In the first few day, basketball fans hopped aboard to to see the Bobcats play the Boston Celtics at the Arena, and football fans rode the rails to watch the Carolina Panthers take on the New Orleans Saints.

On November 26, riders started paying fares. What happened next was amazing.  

While the Transit System had estimated it would likely take a year to reach 9,100 average daily riders, during the first month of paid operations, average daily ridership soared to 12,300. Strong mid-day and special events patronage pushed the numbers higher than anticipated. Many riders report standing-room-only trains during Friday lunch hours.

The initial success of Charlotte's light rail system suggests that a well-designed system could attract substantial numbers of people to rail transportation in cities across the Southeast.

Here in Virginia, Norfolk's light rail system could experience similar success when it opens in 2010.

Charlotte's success should also encourage the state of Virginia to promote the rail option for travel between the cities of Lynchburg, Charlottesville, Culpeper, Manassas, and Alexandria to Washington, DC.

A new study by Amtrak identifies the US Route 29 corridor as a location where new train service could be quickly started at minimal cost. This study discovered an underutilized train that carries passengers from Washington to New York City. Instead of remaining parked in Washington, this train could go as far as Lynchburg where it would layover and then be turned around to return to Washington. This option would also give locals daily service to Baltimore, Wilmington, Philadelphia, and New York without changing trains.

Compared to airplanes and personal vehicles, train transportation is at least 20 percent more fuel-efficient. And concerning the most precious resource of all, human time, rail is extremely efficient. A car or airplane can get a Charlottesvillian to New York City. But only the train (and the Starlight Express bus service) allows the passenger to glide right into the heart of the City– without dealing with the bumper-to-bumper traffic jams that now have New York contemplating enacting a congestion tax.

So what stands in the way of getting this train? For starters, our Department of Rail and Public Transportation will need to negotiate with the owner the tracks, Norfolk Southern, which will want to be paid for some improvements to its infrastructure to ensure reliable service. This money can be obtained from the state's Rail Enhancement Fund.

Covering the operating costs could be trickier. According to Amtrak, the service will require an annual operating subsidy of $1.9 million. Expensive? Not really, considering it costs at least $3 million to add a lane to an existing highway. And that's per mile!

This subsidy can come from state transportation operating funds– if Virginia is willing to relinquish its traditional reliance on asphalt to pave its way out of congestion.

Every day, Route 29 and Interstate 66 seem more crowded. Now, Amtrak wants to see if there's another way to move people through this corridor. Let's give it a chance.

Dick Peacock is a Manassas-based rail activist and member of the Virginia Association of Railway Patrons.