|Low Ridership Projections to Lake Norman--Has All
Suddenly Been Lost?
Consultants have estimated that only 600 commuters will make the switch to the train out of 7,500 vehicles that travel I-77 between the Lake Norman area and Charlotte during the peak rush hour. Our Metropolitan Transit Commission and its chief, Ron Tober, have the difficult decision about whether to commit $80 million over a three year period to improve tracks and operate commuter trains, when it is predicted such a relative few drivers will advantage of the service.
What is being proposed is a demonstration project which would be eligible for partial federal funding, offering people who would normally be driving I-77 an alternative during the reconstruction of that highway. While this widening takes place, long back-ups and very slow traffic movement could be a daily occurrence. One would certainly think drivers would be anxious to try any alternative to facing this twice a day, five times a week. Yet if we can believe our consultants very few drivers will make the switch. Mr. Tober has said his feeling is that "a lot more than 600 people will be riding the train." We certainly share his viewpoint.
However, if the consultants are correct, has everything been lost? Are we still committed to commuter/regional rail service eventually being built in the North Corridor to Lake Norman and possibly Mooresville? If the answer is yes, then much of the money spent on this demonstration project would have to be spent anyway to establish this service.
Certainly in this category would be the necessary track and grade crossing improvements needed to bring train speeds up to 59mph. If we wait to make this investment later, the cost will only be much greater.
It is our opinion we should take this risk. Consultants have become very conservative in their projections. In most cases actual projections have exceeded their estimates, but in a few cases they have been made to look bad when expensive projects were not as immediately successful as projected.
Even when this was the case, numbers eventually have caught up to those original projections. They just took longer than expected. Now the consultants natural tendency seems to be to err on the side of conservancy. We feel far more drivers will use this new service, particularly if congestion on I-77 becomes as bad as anticipated. It is extremely important, however that this service run on time. Commuters will abandon it in a heartbeat if this is not the case. That was proven again recently in Florida and Virginia when track work temporarily disrupted on time performance.
Even if our consultants prove to be right much of the money spent on this project will become an investment in our future transit system, where it will surely be needed.