Here’s what to expect when light rail expands, including an 1,100-foot tunnel

Here’s what to expect when light rail expands, including an 1,100-foot tunnel

CHARLOTTE, NC (Steve Harrison/The Charlotte Observer) - The new Lynx Blue Line extension will offer passengers new views when it opens next year, including the light-rail line's first tunnel and an 820-foot-foot long bridge over Toby Creek Greenway on the UNC Charlotte campus.

The Charlotte Area Transit System's main contractor, Balfour Beatty Rail, has been testing vehicles on the Lynx extension for several weeks. The Observer rode along on a recent trip from the Old Concord Road Station to the northern-most station on the UNC Charlotte campus, which covers six of the extension's 11 new stations.

CATS said it's still "shooting" to open the $1.1 billion Lynx Blue Line extension to the University area by March, and hopes the contractor will finish its work soon. The transit system had originally said the line would open in August of 2017, but the project fell behind in part due to complications such as moving utilities.

After the contractor turns the project over, CATS has said it will need another five months for its own testing before the line opens to the public. To meet the revised March deadline, CATS would need Balfour Beatty Rail to finish the line by early November.

From a visual standpoint, the extension will give passengers a different look than what they see on today's 9.6-mile Lynx Blue Line, which opened nearly 10 years ago.

Much of the 9.3-mile extension runs through a lightly developed stretch of North Tryon Street that looks similar to South Boulevard of a decade ago – a mix of small one-story strip malls and empty lots. But if developers flock to the Lynx extension as they have to the original light-rail line, the area would be transformed.

The extension will let riders travel 20 miles on light rail, from Interstate 485 in the south to UNC Charlotte in the north.

The most interesting segment of the extension is different from anything seen on the existing Lynx Blue Line: a 1,100-foot long tunnel that allows the train to cross under North Tryon Street to reach the UNC Charlotte campus. When traveling north, the Lynx train makes a slow descent underground for 780 feet. It then passes through a 340-foot tunnel.

When the train makes its descent underground, passengers will only be able to see large retaining walls with floral design art by Denver, Colo. artist Carolyn Braaskma, who considers herself to make "practical art." Braaskma also in 2002 designed a fountain for small uptown park The Green, which has spouting fish.

Jill Brim, the Lynx project manager, said she expects graffiti artists, or vandals, to respect Braaskma's work.

"Walls that are treated don't get graffiti," she said. "If we put a blank wall up in NoDa it gets tagged."

The train then passes through a tunnel before coming out on the UNC Charlotte Campus, over the Toby Creek Greenway. The tunnel is the closest thing the Lynx Blue Line has to a subway feel.

Once the train enters the UNC Charlotte campus, it's on the 822-foot long bridge over the greenway – the longest bridge on the project.

Here are some other observations about the line:

? The stations are built long enough for three-car trains, but the extension will only operate with two-car trains for several years.

CATS had worked with the federal government to lengthen the platforms on four existing Lynx stations so they could handle three-car trains. But the transit system told the Federal Transit Administration in January that it would postpone lengthening the final 11 stations, possibly until 2024.

? Four park-and-ride lots include 3,100 spaces total, three of which are parking decks at Sugar Creek, JW Clay Boulevard and University City Boulevard stations.

The Old Concord Road park-and-ride station, which is a surface lot, and the Sugar Creek deckwill be free.

CATS, however, will charge a fee to use the JW Clay Boulevard and University Boulevard station decks. The price hasn't been set yet, and some riders with passes will be able to use the decks for free.

"CATS is in the process of determining what the minimum value of the transit pass will be that allows a customer to ride LYNX and exit the two decks for free," said CATS spokesperson Krystel Green.

All parking on the existing Blue Line is free.

CATS also designed the decks with space for ground-level retail.

The extension was originally designed to end at a large park-and-ride station near I-485. But to save money, CATS eliminated the final part of the line. The transit system is considering building new transit lines to the airport, Matthews and Lake Norman, but hasn't discussed extending the Blue Line to the outerbelt.

? The Blue Line extension will have a different look than much of the Blue Line, which had a lot of orange. Some of the bridges on the southern part of the existing line are painted orange.

There is little or no orange on the extension. Several of the bridges have a green inter-locking leaf design that Braaskma also designed.

The station signs on the existing Blue Line and Blue Line extension stations are all blue – except for the UNC Charlotte station, which are green. That's a tribute to the university, whose color is green.

? Each station has its own artist.

The Old Concord Road station, for instance, was designed by Chandra Cox, head of the department of art and design at N.C. State University. It was influenced by "the woodland bird habitat adjacent to the station location, an area of abundant wildlife between the (station) and Eastway Park."

The most visually striking part of the station are "stainless steel birds modeled after indigenous mallards, raptors, woodpeckers, and doves will appear to emerge from a line of cattails. "

The extension has been far more complicated to build than the original light-rail line.

The project has had several delays, the most recent being CATS' announcement that the opening would be delayed from August 2017 to March 2018. March is the federal government's deadline for finishing the project.

CATS and the Federal Transit Administration haven't said whether the transit system would face any financial penalties if the project misses the new March 2018 deadline.

The original light-rail line was also late. It exceeded its budget as well, and the city of Charlotte had to pay for all of the cost overruns.

CATS has said the Lynx extension will not exceed its budget.

City Council has approved several change orders for the project, and CATS said earlier this summer it had found more than 2,000 cracked ties along the line. The ties are the concrete slabs in between the rails.

Brim, the project manager, said the ties have been replaced or fixed. She said they were discovered two years ago, and weren't the reason for the project missing its August 2017 planned opening.