Charlotte’s light-rail extension opens in March. Here’s what you need to know.

Charlotte’s light-rail extension opens in March. Here’s what you need to know.

CHARLOTTE, NC (Steve Harrison/The Charlotte Observer) - Charlotte plans to open the second piece of the Lynx Blue Line – a 9.3-mile segment from uptown to UNC Charlotte – on March 16.

It's the most expensive public works project in the city's history and will double the amount of light rail in the city.

The extension debuts a little more than a decade after the original light-rail segment opened in November 2007, and it will give the city a total of 20 miles of rail, and a 45-minute trip from the outerbelt in south Charlotte to the university. Charlotte has ambitious plans to build more rail, but with little money available, there are no firm plans to move forward with more lines.

Here are some basics about the $1.1 billion extension:

Where the extension goes:

The Lynx extension begins in uptown, where the Blue Line tracks end at the Seventh Street station. It travels 9.3 miles through uptown, NoDa and then to UNC Charlotte.

The original plan was for the train to stop at Interstate 485 with a large park-and-ride station, but that final two miles was removed to keep the project within a $1.1 billion budget. The extension has 11 new stations.

When it opens: 

The Friday, March 16 opening happens to be the first day Charlotte is hosting the NCAA men's basketball tournament uptown, so fans staying in Concord and University City can take the train to first round games.

In late January, CATS began running a regular schedule on the extension, as the final parts of its months-long testing. But no passengers will ride until mid-March.

The cost of a ticket: 

The one-way Lynx ticket is the same as the cost of a bus fare: $2.20. That ticket allows passengers to transfer from bus to train or vice versa.

CATS also sells monthly and weekly passes. And UNC Charlotte students can ride the train at a steep discount. Students will be billed $25 per semester as part of their tuition. That gives them a "All-Access Transit Pass."

CATS also recently replaced the ticket-vending machines at Lynx stations. The old machines – which dated to the Lynx's 2007 opening – were prone to breaking.

And the transit system recently rolled out a cellphone app that allows people to buy a ticket.

The Lynx is something of an honor system in that there is no turnstile to walk through. Fare inspectors are on some trains, and it's a $50 citation if you don't have a ticket.

Parking decks for commuters:

The original Lynx line has a 1,120-space park-and-ride station at Interstate 485 and South Boulevard, the last station on the line. The parking deck and surface lots are often full with commuters from South Carolina and south Charlotte.

On the extension, there is no park-and-ride lot on the final station, which is on the UNC Charlotte campus.

The extension has four park-and-ride lots with 3,100 spaces total. Three of those 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 deck will be free.

CATS, however, will charge a fee to use the JW Clay Boulevard and University Boulevard station decks. But people riding the Lynx will be able to park for free. They must show a pass or ticket when they leave the deck.

The schedule:

CATS said it hopes to operate trains every 7.5 minutes during rush hour in the morning and evening. It hasn't said what the off-peak and weekend schedules may be, and CATS said it's currently "testing schedules."

The train has operated every 10 minutes during rush hour and every 15 minutes during off-peak times on the weekdays.

Cost to build:

Ten years ago, CATS estimated the extension would cost $750 million. It also thought it could have opened five years ago.

The cost today is $1.1 billion – even after CATS shortened the line by stopping the train at UNC Charlotte. The federal government is paying for half of the construction costs, and the state and city are splitting the other half.

The extension is twice as expensive as the original 9.7-mile Blue Line, which cost $462.7 million a decade ago. Part of the increase is because of inflation. Another factor is that the extension was much more complicated to build than the original light-rail line.

Are more lines coming?

CATS chief executive John Lewis has ambitious plans to expand light rail. He wants to build a line from Matthews to the airport, and some form of rail transportation from uptown to Lake Norman.

Building both of those could cost between $5 billion and $7 billion.