CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WOFL FOX 35 ORLANDO) - Charlotte, N.C. received money from the federal government to build a light rail system after the Orange County Commission voted light rail down in a controversial 4 to 3 vote back in 1999. It would take the area 8 more years to finally agree to bring a train to Central Florida.
Charlotte's light rail system has many of the same components and some key differences from the SunRail system that will open in May. The most important distinction between the two is that the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) LYNX trains are part of a light rail system. SunRail, however, will be a commuter rail system which will utilize a heavy rail corridor shared with CSX Corporation.
Riding the rails
Riding on the SunRail line will be very similar to Charlotte's LYNX. Just like in Charlotte, you will use a kiosk to purchase a card ticket. No one will be on the train to take your ticket, and there will not be any barriers to entry at the SunRail station. Essentially, it is an "honor system." In the three days we spent riding that light rail system, not once did a conductor come up and ask us for a ticket to ensure we paid for our trip. Charlotte does random inspections on the trains. Riding without a ticket is generally a $50 fine if you are caught, but the possibility of arrest also exists.
SunRail is a commuter train, and we found many people in Charlotte use light rail for the exact same reason -- getting to and from work or school. Tom Palmgren echoed the sentiments of those that are selling SunRail here. He rides from the furthest stop into Charlotte's central district, called Uptown.
"I don't want to pay for parking downtown," he said. "It's fast. I don't have to sit in traffic, and also you get to read and sit down and relax."
Kelsey Kreysa is a law student living in the suburbs. She uses the train mostly for school, but she also goes to events in Uptown at the major arena there, or goes out at night with her friends using the train.
"I usually take the train four days a week. It's a lot cheaper and more convenient than driving to school and having to find parking for the day, or having to pay for an actual parking spot."
There is a major price difference between Charlotte and Orlando. A one-way LYNX ticket in Charlotte costs $2, with discounts if more trips are purchased. SunRail prices will also start at $2 one way, but each time a rider crosses a county line, an additional dollar will be added. It would cost $4 to ride from the DeBary stop to Downtown Orlando.
The biggest difference though between these two systems is in the frequency of the trains. Service begins just before 5:30 in the morning in Charlotte and does not end until just before 1:30 in the morning. Charlotte trains also run every 10 minutes. Tina Votaw is the Transit Oriented Development Manager for CATS. She says that frequency and reliability make the trains much more popular.
"You are trying to service a lifestyle, so it's important to have a quality of service, which means frequency typically."
SunRail trains will run between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., Monday through Friday. During commute hours, trains will run every 30 minutes, likely between 6:30 a.m. and 9 a.m., then again from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. During off peak hours, a SunRail train will only run every 2 hours. One question that can not be answered until service begins is, if you miss that train and have to wait, would you ever be willing to ride SunRail again?
Potential SunRail problems
As previously noted, what could be the biggest challenge for SunRail to overcome is the frequency of the trains.
In Charlotte, a train shows up for their light rail system every 10 minutes from 5:30 a.m. to 1:30 a.m. In Orlando, Steve Olson with the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) says SunRail will run every half-hour during peak hours, and every two hours during off peak hours.
"Primarily, what people need to know is this is going to be a commuter service, Monday through Friday, getting you downtown, getting you back home."
SunRail will not have service on the weekends, but Olson says the FDOT will consider adding services for things like special events if the funding becomes available from government or private sources. SunRail is also not considered to be a money maker.
In Charlotte, the operating budget for light rail is more than $17 million, and the system takes in just $3.8 million in fares. Larry Bumgarner, who has a website that tracks Charlotte's light rail says Orlando is in for sticker shock.
"To pay for light rail, just take it out of your nose and just keep paying for it, because that's what you're going to be paying, through the nose."
Bumgarner is concerned that there is such a large deficit, even though the ridership numbers for Charlotte's light rail system have far exceeded expectations. The city hoped for about 9,000 riders a day, but have more than 15,000 on a given day. Bumgarner says for the kind of money they spent building and operating this system, every resident of the city of Charlotte could have their own transportation system.
"If we were to have taken all this money and given everybody a car. We could have gotten them a brand new luxury car every three years and still saved quite a bit of money for the taxpayers."
For SunRail, the State of Florida will cover the operation of the train for the first seven years it is in service. After that, it will be up to the counties and cities that have SunRail to fund it, and there is no plan set in stone yet for how each municipality will pay their share.
The only major concern we found among riders was security on the trains.
"Last month, there was just one incident where I felt uncomfortable, because there as an altercation between two men, and it didn't seem like there was any type of authority to do anything about the altercation," said Kreysa. "It seems the driver of the train was the only one who could take any kind of action."
Charlotte transit system CEO Carolyn Flowers admitted that cost was a factor in why there was not a security officer on board each train at all times, but says incidents on trains have been rare.
"We have a control center that's watching every station. They're filming us right now. So we have passive security, and we have active security on the system."
There is a armed security force that patrols Charlotte's rail system, but in three days, we only saw one of those officers board a train. In Central Florida, FDOT will be responsible for security on the train. At the beginning of the service, Olson says conductors will be the main point of contact if there is a security problem.
"Uniformed police officers can ride the train for free, so that's an added plus, but as far as hiring a police force, that's not in the plans right now."
The federal Transportation Security Administration will also have a SunRail security plan. For the beginning of service, if a crime is believed to have been committed, an officer will take a report at the stop where it is alleged, and then forward that complaint to the agency where they believe the crime happened.be a commuter rail system which will utilize a heavy rail corridor shared with CSX Corporation.
Development, will it come?
One of the major selling points for SunRail has been the amount of new development that would occur in and around the train stations if SunRail were to be built.
Eight years into operating the light rail system in Charlotte, we did find evidence that developers started projects in the areas where the light rail system stops. Votaw says don't expect new buildings everywhere, but there will be plenty of interest in bringing new projects to Orlando based on what she has seen in her city.
"We've seen a lot of development, very robust development around about half the line."
Charlotte Mayor ProTem Michael Barnes says more than $1.4 billion in developments have popped up along the Charlotte light rail line. Most of those have been apartment complexes.
"Businesses want to have their employees near that transportation option and have the convenience of being able to hop on a train and get uptown and be able to head to South Charlotte from Uptown."
Votaw says if our pattern with SunRail follows that of Charlotte's, we may look to the area just south of downtown Orlando to see where these projects may occur. Most of the area just south of Charlotte's Uptown was a collection of industrial and warehouses, similar to our city. That area is now bustling with residential apartments, and she says it has been a big benefit for the city.
"With a fairly low density, and a fairly low tax base because it was taxed as industrial, whereas all of this new development has a different tax classification and obviously it generates much more revenue."
Much of that new development was given a tax break under Charlotte's tax abatement program. The city says the breaks really helped during the early years and when the recession began. Now, Charlotte only gives an incentive on the filing fees for zoning changes. Mayor ProTem Barnes is proud of how the city handled the new growth.
"I think it's been successful because a lot of the area we've used those incentives for were areas that were probably going to take a lot longer to develop."
SunRail's plans are similar. The City of Orlando is already waiving transportation fees for developers inside the SunRail zones. Two words of caution though about how SunRail and development will go hand in hand. The first comes from Michael Barnes, who says Orlando should be prudent in where it sends the commuter trains.
"If Orlando can link to major institutions, medical institutions, colleges, whatever it may be, but linking to major, permanent institutions in the city will make it be much more successful."
SunRail will go to both major hospitals in the city of Orlando, but will not go to UCF, the airport, or the Medical City at Lake Nona. Those potential spurs will be on the wish list for transportation in the future.
The second warning comes from Votaw who tells us that not every station will develop in the same way. She says many of the stops in the areas south of Uptown Charlotte did not show significant signs of development. For them, she says that is OK, but if planners in cities like Longwood, Lake Mary and Altamonte are counting on swelling tax coffers from new buildings near their stops, they may have to be more patient.
FOX 35's Mike Synan spent three days in Charlotte, N.C. riding their light rail system to learn more about how SunRail will work in preparation for its grand opening in May. Charlotte was selected, because the system was young, and it might be comparable to how our train system could work.