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Transit Time: University City eyes a privately funded shuttle
You’re reading Transit Time, a weekly newsletter for Charlotte people who leave the house. Cars, buses, light rail, bikes, scooters … if you use it to get around the city, we write about it. Transit Time is produced in partnership among The Charlotte Ledger, WFAE and the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute.
A new bridge across I-85 will allow better connections between light rail and employment centers; a self-driving vehicle?
Autonomous vehicles in University City? Major employers, the city government and University City Partners envision reliable shuttles connecting light rail to employment centers after a new I-85 bridge opens in 2025. (Rendering from November 2021 City Council meeting)
by Tony Mecia
When Tobe Holmes looks into the future, he sees a world in which big companies in University City can be a sensible job choice for young workers who live in South End.
Right now, that’s about a 30-minute drive. The Lynx Blue Line goes up to University City, of course, and takes nearly 40 minutes from South End and 20 minutes from NoDa. But there’s no reliable connection between the area’s light rail stations and its big employers in University Research Park and Innovation Park.
Holmes, University City Partners’ interim executive director, is helping lead the push to create some kind of a transportation link between the light rail, which runs along North Tryon Street, and University City’s major employment centers on the other side of I-85. They might take the form of vans or small shuttles, or eventually self-driving vehicles.
To make it work, he’s looking to raise money from major corporate players, and the effort would be largely privately funded — kind of like the old free Gold Rush shuttles that used to loop through uptown. (That service ended in 2017, after private funding dried up.)
Holmes says he has a firm commitment for financial support from one company and soft commitments from several others, whom he declines to name. He thinks the corporate interest will be rekindled when companies are fully back in the office — and see the worsening traffic.
The largest employers in University Research Park who could benefit from such a service include Centene, TIAA, Electrolux, Wells Fargo, United Rentals, the Electric Power Research Institute and Fox Sports. Holmes figures there are about 25,000 workers in normal times in University Research Park — enough to make a shuttle service viable.
The idea hinges to a large degree on plans to build a new bridge across I-85, which would provide a more direct connection between the J.W. Clay light rail stop and the University Research Park.
The I-85 “North Bridge” would be north of Harris Boulevard and would link the J.W. Clay light rail station with University Research Park. The city has finished design and real estate acquisition for the project and is in the process of relocating utilities before putting the project out to bid and starting construction, according to the city’s website on the project.
At a City Council meeting in November, economic development director Tracy Dodson said the bridge “allows us to think about how could we creatively look at last mile connections … Could we get creative with something like autonomous vehicles on this last mile, or different modes of transportation? This all came from Centene."
The bridge is scheduled for completion in 2025.
Although self-driving vehicles might eventually be in the plans, service would probably start with more traditional vehicles, Holmes said. They might run at certain intervals, or use on-demand technology to schedule trips. To appeal to riders, the vehicles would have to “be pretty nice,” he said, with wifi, and stops might serve free coffee and have indoor waiting areas.
Today, the Charlotte Area Transit System’s Route 50 runs two buses in the morning, an hour and a half apart, from the University City Boulevard light rail station into Innovation Park and University Research Park, with two additional buses an hour apart the other direction in the late afternoon. Ridership is low.
CATS could be involved in the shuttles in some capacity, like providing drivers, but it’s too early to say.
Holmes said as soon as the private funding firms up, University City Partners will send out a request for proposals. Right now, the idea is in a conceptual phase.
But he says that with more workers returning to the office and about 3,600 new apartments scheduled to be completed by the end of 2023 in University City, now is the time to start planning.
“By 2025, we will definitely have started to feel some pain around here in regards to congestion,” he says. “At some point, the pain will provide a need for a solution.”
Tony Mecia is executive editor of The Charlotte Ledger.
Related Charlotte Ledger articles:
“University City is primed to add jobs, big-time” (Feb. 14, 2020)
“Putting the ‘city’ in ‘University City’” (with video 🎥, Dec. 10, 2021)
Independence bus lanes to reopen — with city money: Citing the NCDOT's funding shortfalls, Charlotte City Council voted Monday to spend $750,000 to restore and reopen the bus lanes in the middle of Independence Boulevard. The lanes have been closed since construction started on the Hawthorne Lane bridge for the Gold Line streetcar in 2017. The plan was to turn those lanes into toll lanes, but the city now says that is “significantly delayed” because of a multibillion-dollar hole in the NCDOT’s budget. By funding the work needed to reopen the lanes now instead of waiting for the state, the city says that buses and emergency vehicles will be able to use the Independence Boulevard lanes again by the end of the year.
Concerns about transit plan: Members of Charlotte’s Black Political Caucus said at a news conference this week that the city’s big transit plan would include elements such as a sales tax and streetcar expansion that could hurt Black residents. “These projects will significantly affect the Black community’s access to quick and efficient transportation, affordable housing, ability to maintain home ownership, upper mobility and other economic opportunities,” the group’s chairwoman said. The group is asking for anti-displacement measures, affordable housing near light rail and more minority contractors on transit projects. (Observer)
CATS workers demand more protections: CATS workers at Monday's City Council meeting said they aren't safe on the job. Joined by other city employees seeking better wages and benefits, CATS employees said they're still worried about safety in the wake of the murder of driver Ethan Rivera last month. Renee Holzbach, a CATS driver and union representative, said she's been attacked at work. “I’m a victim of assault on the bus,” Holzbach said. “My nose was broken I was attacked. I didn’t even know the person. He did not know me. He just walked on the bus and he broke my nose. The problem here is that we have a safety issue.” (WFAE)
Transit as a climate change solution: CATS CEO John Lewis promoted transit as a potential way to mitigate Charlotte's climate change impact — if the city can win approval for a 1-cent sales tax to fund a system expansion. “I need to buy 100-plus more buses. I need to hire 50 to 60 more operators and 30 to 40 more mechanics in order to have an effective transit system,” Lewis said, referring to the bus system's needs. The 1-cent sales tax would fund a $13.5 billion transit system expansion, most of that going to new rail lines, but the tax has no path forward through the legislature and onto the ballot for a voter referendum this year. Lewis said an effective transit system is key to lowering Charlotte's carbon emissions, 40% of which come from transportation. (WFAE)
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