Light rail helps Charlotte avoid Tampa's bus woes

Passengers get on and off a LYNX light rail train Tuesday at a stop in uptown Charlotte, N.C. Many Democratic National Convention visitors are traveling via rail. Ridership on the system, which opened in 2007, was up 148 percent on Monday.
Passengers get on and off a LYNX light rail train Tuesday at a stop in uptown Charlotte, N.C. Many Democratic National Convention visitors are traveling via rail. Ridership on the system, which opened in 2007, was up 148 percent on Monday.
Published Sept. 5, 2012

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Artellia Burch isn't so sure she would have braved the traffic to attend Monday's street festival that helped launch the Democratic National Convention.

The area surrounding the convention was packed with residents, visiting journalists and delegates and would have been difficult to reach by car because of parking headaches and congestion, said the 39-year-old supporter of President Barack Obama.

So Burch didn't drive.

Instead, she was one of the 33,000 passengers who rode LYNX, a 10-mile stretch of light rail that opened in 2007 after voters here approved a sales tax — the same tax that Hillsborough County residents rejected two years ago on a wave of tea party opposition.

The two diverging paths taken by the cities has become ever more apparent these last two weeks as they have hosted the coronation parties of the Republicans and Democrats, the largest special events either city has ever hosted.

While Republicans last week relied on private charter buses to shuttle delegates around the sprawling landscape of Tampa, the Democrats will partly rely on rail to lighten the traffic load.

Rail has already provided a lift. On Monday, Burch and others boosted ridership on LYNX by 148 percent over a typical weekday. Part of that was because of the Labor Day holiday, but regardless, it still means that many more cars were off the road.

On Tuesday afternoon, a LYNX passenger car was jammed with delegates and guests of the DNC as they returned to their hotel rooms.

"Why can't we have something like this in Tampa?" asked Sarah Meachen, a 65-year-old Obama volunteer who lives in Tampa Palms.

Meachen was here with her friend Andrea Braboy, who is 62 and also volunteers for Obama. They rode the LYNX line to their Arlington Suites hotel room, which was about 8 miles from the Charlotte Convention Center.

"Compared to this, getting around in Tampa was impossible," Braboy said.

Their ride on Lynx took less than 10 minutes, plus they didn't have to worry about driving in a city they didn't know, they said.

By comparison, they found traveling to the RNC in their hometown daunting. Braboy marched outside the Tampa Bay Times Forum in support of abortion rights during the last two days of the convention.

To get there from her South Tampa job took about 40 minutes. Much of that was to find parking and to walk to the event.

"Why should it take that long?" Braboy said. "It's so much easier here."

Charlotte's 10-mile line cost $462.7 million to build, of which, the federal government paid half. It costs $2 to ride, and $4 for a round trip. An all-day pass costs $8.

It's too early to tell how much LYNX will help. But it seems like the Democrats are using fewer buses to move more delegates.

About 250 buses will be used to move nearly 6,000 delegates to DNC events. In Tampa, 400 buses were used to ferry 2,200 delegates, a plan that was later deemed insufficient after several buses were late for several state delegations, including New Jersey, Utah and Florida.

Some delegates missed part of the convention or were returned to their hotel rooms after 3 a.m. Florida Republicans had to hire more buses to cope.

Even with those mishaps, Republicans like Thomas Hogan, a state committeeman from Brooksville, said there are too many unknowns that accompany rail, and he still favors getting around in buses.

"For something like a convention, the mode of travel should be buses," Hogan said. "Now, they made a lot of mistakes in Tampa, but they got them straightened out and the last two days, we didn't have a problem. Rail has too many variables: Where would it be? How far would we walk? I just don't think it would work."

Skepticism like that helped defeat light rail in 2010 in Hillsborough County, which dashed the hopes of former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, who had pushed for it. (Tampa's system would not have been ready for the RNC even if voters had approved the plan in 2010.)

"All big cities have adequate mass transit," Iorio said. "It's the one deficiency that we have. It shows up when we have big events, and it shows up in our daily lives. If we had it for the convention, my guess is, light rail would have connected major activity centers together. People would have used it."

As Monday and Tuesday proved, that holds true in Charlotte, which this summer got federal approval to expand its rail line, making it double in size by 2017.

"Charlotte is light years ahead of Tampa," Meachen said. "We're not even close. I think I want to move here."