Monday, March 31, 2008

Atlanta envies Charlotte

CATS played host last week to a group of Atlanta officials who came to to see how Charlotte is integrating land-use and transit. Here is a take on their visit in the AJC.

Here are a couple of thoughts on comparing Atlanta to Charlotte:

1) When MARTA opened its first train in 1979, there was pretty much zero chance of integrating land-use with rail service. People were fleeing the city for the suburbs, so developers viewed the idea of building high-rises around train stations as foolish. Charlotte has done an excellent job at using the Lynx to remake South Boulevard, but it also benefited from perfect conditions: A booming population, a solid housing market, and, most important, a willingness of people to move back in the city.

2) MARTA has suffered from tight budgets and service cutbacks this decade, especially in its bus service. But the system is a workhorse. It has 48 miles of heavy rail, and its trains carry about 77 million passenger trips annually. The LYNX is 9.6 miles, and it will probably carry between 4 and 4.5 million passenger trips in its first year.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

More people, more traffic.

The Census released new population estimates for counties today.

It looks like the Charlotte metro area is now at 1.65 million people, a big jump from the 2006 estimate of 1.583 million. Charlotte metro is now bigger than Providence, and will probably overtake Virginia Beach, Columbus and Indianapolis in a year or two.

The housing bust that dampened growth in many warm-weather areas hasn't yet hit Charlotte, though next year's estimates will probably show far fewer new residents. This data was through July 1, 2007, and the miserable data on housing starts from the fall isn't reflected in this estimate.

The crush of new people will continue to tax our highways - and revive the debate over resources for roads versus transit.

It's also worth noting that most new people in North Carolina are going to Raleigh-Durham and Charlotte, then smaller areas like the Triad, Asheville and Wilmington. But the state's way of distributing new highway money - under the 1989 equity formula - doesn't account for the change as much as urban politicians would like.

Half of the money is based on population, but the other half isn't tied to growth. Twenty-five percent of the money is distributed evenly among funding regions, and another 25 percent is based on the number of important two-lane roads that are slated for improvement. That usually helps more rural areas.

Update: As some of you mentioned below, I had a typo in the above post. Charlotte's metro population is now about 1.65 million - not 1.6 million.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Ridership up. CATS can thank the CIAA and high gas prices.

Here are the Charlotte Area Transit System's February ridership numbers:

The Lynx Blue Line averaged 14,246 trips on weekdays, and 13,160 on Saturdays. Sunday was a laggard at 8,805.

February numbers were up significantly from January, and a big factor was the nearly weeklong CIAA tournament uptown.

CATS said ridership during the CIAA Tournament, from Monday, February 25 to Saturday, March 1, was 80,000 trips.

Ridership during the ACC Tournament - which ran Thursday-Sunday - was 90,000, according to CATS.

For CATS, the best news is in the bus ridership, which is influenced by high gas prices but not special events. Regional express bus ridership was up nearly 22 percent, and local bus service was up just under 9 percent.

update: February had 29 days this year, which bumps up year-over-year bus comparisons. CATS said all bus service increased just under 9 percent compared with February 2007, and 4.5 percent when the Leap Day is removed.

Monday, March 10, 2008

This is surprising

The parking deck at the I-485/South Boulevard station was completely full last Thursday. I checked it out late that morning, and I couldn't find an open space - though there was room in the small surface lot adjacent to the garage.

When the Lynx Blue Line first opened, there were about 300 cars in the deck, which has 1,120 spaces. It was a pretty empty place, especially on the second floor, which is the least convenient place to park. There were some spaces deep in the corners that I thought might never see a car.

I checked out the lot again today. I'd say there were about 50 or 60 open spaces in the entire deck.

Some of the more northern stations are still tumbleweed park-and-rides - Archdale usually only as 30 cars - but the I-485 and Sharon Road West stations are pretty much at capacity. Will CATS shift money around to create more parking? CATS has room at I-485 for a second deck.

The head-scratching flashing yellow

Got a few e-mails about this story on the new flashing yellow arrow, which replaces the "green ball" for permitted - but not protected - left turns. All asked: What about people who are color blind?

The new flashing yellow signal heads have four different signals - one for green arrow, yellow arrow, red arrow and flashing yellow arrow - so I assume you could still figure out what's going on by watching the which signal head is in use. But I don't think it will be easy. The pattern on the new lights can give you whiplash - green arrow, yellow arrow, red arrow, flashing yellow arrow, yellow arrow, red arrow.

What confuses me about the new signal is the second yellow arrow, which comes after the flashing yellow arrow. The flashing yellow arrow means you can make a left turn but you must yield. The second yellow arrow means that signal is ending.

When a lot of people see a yellow, they think they have one or two seconds to get through the intersection, and are protected in going straight or turning. That's not the case with the second yellow in this sequence.

Maybe the flashing yellow arrow should flash much faster before it turns to red?

Thursday, February 28, 2008

CATS eyes fare increase. What does that mean?

The Charlotte Area Transit System last night said it's considering raising fares later this year, as opposed to 2009, as planned. The looming recession will likely produce smaller increases in transit sales tax revenue than expected. Fuel prices are going up.

This isn't earth-shattering news. But after last fall's transit tax debate, CATS' finances have been under tremendous scrutiny.

Here are my thoughts on what the future holds:

1) Late last year, CATS floated the idea that it might be willing to spend more of its money to build the commuter rail line to the Lake Norman area. Its contribution is penciled in at 34 percent, but CATS hinted it could go higher to entice north Mecklenburg towns to help pay for it.

I think that option is over. There isn't enough money to pay for 40 or 45 percent of the commuter line - especially with the northeast extension being planned. That 11-mile line to the University City area is the top priority, as it should be.

2) The smaller than expected increases in sales tax revenue isn't a crisis. After 9-11, revenue from the transit sales tax shrunk for a year or two before growing significantly in the last three years. CATS is only projecting growth of 4 percent for the next two years, rather than 5.75 percent. The 5.75 percent average increase was over a 30-year period. The sales tax that funds Atlanta's MARTA, for instance, grew by an average of 6.7 percent since it was first enacted in 1973.

3) The increase in expenses is a bigger deal. CATS long-range financial plan is very aggressive when it comes to controlling costs, though history suggests that's a tall order for transit agencies. At last night's Metropolitan Transit Commission meeting, CATS ticked off a number of areas were costs are rising, in addition to fuel. The security budget is projected to be $5.4 million in 2009, up from $5 million in 2008. Maintenance costs are also rising.

CATS has big plans. I'm guessing in the next year it will create a revised schedule, pushing some projects back a year or two as it waits for the transit tax to generate more money. The 2030 plan - which wasn't finished until 2034 - might have to be renamed the 2037 plan.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

How CATS is counting

The Charlotte Area Transit System has released two months of ridership data for the Lynx Blue Line. Several people have e-mailed asking how CATS tallies its passengers, so here is a brief explanation:

CATS will soon have automatic passenger counters above the doors in all Lynx cars. It expects them to be ready this spring, but until then, the transit agency is relying on a sample of passengers.

In the first two days of operation, back in November, CATS had a near 100 percent count. Since then, it has sampled about 8 or 9 percent of weekday trains, and more on weekends. The transit agency said it’s following Federal Transit Administration guidelines.

A computer randomly picks which trains to count, and a subcontractor then assigns people to keep track of who gets on and off.

When the automatic people counters are working, CATS – and anyone else - will be able to dig deep and analyze ridership trends. What’s the busiest train? Is ridership increasing or decreasing on a particular train?

Monday, February 18, 2008

Lynx ridership down, but tops predictions

The Charlotte Area Transit System recently released ridership numbers for January, with the Lynx Blue Line showing a slight decrease in ridership.

Light rail averaged 11,930 weekday trips in January, down from 12,457 in December, the first full month of operation. Sunday ridership in January was 6,249, down from 7,460 the month before. The biggest change was on Saturday. There were 8,157 trips in January, down from 12,871.

What does that mean?

CATS projected the first year of light rail would average 9,100 weekday trips, so the transit agency is far ahead of that pace, with a two-month weekday average of 12,194. It also predicted there would be a drop once the novelty of the train wore off.

January didn’t have any Panthers games, where as December had two Sunday homes dates and a Saturday night game against Dallas.

But CATS will likely get a boost from special events in the next two months. The CIAA Tournament, the ACC Tournament and the NCAA East Regional will fill trains, especially on weekends.

CATS overall ridership – trains, buses, and shuttles – was up 9.4 percent in January compared to the same time a year earlier. That should be obvious considering the additional of the Lynx, but some cities have seen rail ridership cannibalize existing bus ridership.

Hot lanes, part II

I wrote in the newspaper Sunday about the first analysis of where HOT lanes could be used in Charlotte, with the winners being I-77 in north Mecklenburg and Independence Boulevard.

HOT lanes – high-occupancy toll lanes – allow single drivers to pay for the right to use carpool lanes. Cities – most of whom are much bigger than Charlotte – are turning to HOT lanes to battle congestion after realizing they aren’t getting their money’s worth from traditional carpool lanes.

One aspect of HOT lanes that I didn’t address is that experts say it’s politically difficult to create a HOT lane at the expense of a general purpose lane. So if an expressway has recently been rebuilt – think I-85 in northeast Charlotte – that probably strikes it from the list.

Early next decade, I-85 will be widened from Concord Mills to N.C. 73. With that project set to begin in two or three years, it’s unlikely to be changed to add an extra lane. And if were, would it be worth having a HOT lane through Cabarrus County only?

Another part of the story neglected in the newspaper is whether the HOT lane would have its own exit, or whether HOT lane motorists would have to merge back into regular traffic.
If the city and state build a HOT lane on I-77 in north Mecklenburg, they have kicked around the idea of adding a HOT lane exit and entrance for the Brookshire Freeway, and possibly another exit uptown. That raises the degree of difficulty on the project considerably. Instead of re-stripping the road and adding barriers, the state and city would be remaking some of the busiest interchanges in the state.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

First Washington, now Miami

I have written about the metaphorical bomb dropped on Washington D.C. Metro when the federal government indicated last month it wouldn’t fund its planned rail extension to Dulles International Airport. The Federal Transit Administration said it was downgrading the project from a “medium” score to “medium-low,” which doesn’t meet the threshold for federal funding.

The FTA has done it again, this time shocking Miami-Dade Transit, which wanted to extend its Metrorail to Broward County. The FTA downgraded the Miami project, using similar language as it did when it rejected Washington D.C. It questioned whether Miami-Dade could pay to operate its existing transit system, much less a new line. It raised similar concerns in Washington.

This is germane to Charlotte because the Charlotte Area Transit System is moving forward in extending light rail to University City. CATS is starting next month engineering work to determine how it will build the $750 million, 11-mile extension.

CATS feels good about the project. The FTA last year approved it for preliminary engineering work, and CATS said that the ridership success of the Lynx Blue Line will help its projections with the northeast corridor.

It also has stressed that it’s going to stop along the way and make sure the FTA is still on board before it finishes the entire study, which would cost $30 million.

There won’t be a perfect time CATS to move forward, and transit officials here have stressed that if they don’t start engineering work now, they’ll never know if the FTA will ultimately pay for their train line.

That said, the Washington and Miami-Dade decisions underscore the risks in building trains. It also reinforces the belief among transit executives that this is a particularly tough time to get mass transit funding. They hope the next administration will loosen the purse strings.