How could SunRail transform Orlando? Look at Charlotte

By Caroline Rowland, Reporter
Last Updated: Tuesday, April 22, 2014, 4:38 PM EDT

As the grand opening of SunRail in Central Florida gets closer, News 13 takes a look at the impact a similar commuter rail system has had on a region similar to ours: Charlotte, North Carolina.

Over the past two decades, Charlotte has grown at one of the fastest rates in the country. Today, it's the 17th largest city in the United States.

To compare, the city of Orlando ranks 77th in population, but the Orlando metropolitan area, which includes all of Central Florida, actually has a greater population than the Charlotte metro area.

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Quick Population Comparison

  • City Population (2012 estimates)
    • Orlando: 249,652 (77th)
    • Charlotte: 775,2002 (17th)
  • Metropolitan Area Population (2012 estimates)
    • Orlando: 2.9 million (20th)
    • Charlotte: 2.4 million (25th)

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A major challenge Charlotte has had, however, is changing to a "big city" mindset.

City Planner Debra Campbell says it took almost two decades to convince Charlotte that it needed other mass transit besides buses.

"We are, generally, a car-centric city, and that was all we'd known as far as major transportation modes went," said Campbell.

"We didn't have the option of anything other than driving in and out, or buses," said Bob Morgan, a lifelong Charlotte resident and CEO of the city's Chamber of Commerce. "But for people who come from Charlotte, where transit isn't a way of life, I'm not sure they saw the benefits of it."

Despite initial resistance, the LYNX Blue Line was eventually approved in the late 1990s. It took almost 10 years to build before opening in 2007.

Charlotte city leaders said what has surprised them in the last six years is how quickly the community latched on to their new trains, which have become a staple of city transportation.

When LYNX first opened in 2007, Charlotte's goal was 9,000 riders per day. The Blue Line far exceeded that number, seeing about 16,000 people ride it every day.

According to a survey by the Charlotte Area Transportation System, 72 percent of LYNX riders had never used public transportation before the Blue Line opened.

"You can find anecdotal stories of people who moved to Charlotte, they live on that line, and they don't even own an automobile," said Morgan. "That was not an option just 10 years ago."

When SunRail opens, it is not scheduled to run on weekends, and the ride's operators have not yet decided is whether it will run during special events. In Charlotte, city leaders say LYNX has been critical in helping people get to special events, including Carolina Panthers NFL games.

"We've had some days where we get over 30,000 riders per day," said John Muth, with the Charlotte Area Transit System, or CATS for short.

"Football games, baseball games, concerts, you name it," Morgan added. "The train is well used, well into the evening."

Another way you can see it's working: A rail line extension is already under construction. CATS is adding another 9 miles to the current LYNX line, which currently runs less than 10 miles. Plans to start a longer commuter rail line are also in talks.

LYNX has also brought massive development to Charlotte, an estimated $3 billion.

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Side-by-side comparison

  SunRail LYNX Blue Line
Opening Year
2014
2007
Span
DeBary to south Orlando, Fla.
Uptown to South Charlotte, N.C.
Length
32 miles (Phase 1)
9.6 miles
Construction
Built on existing tracks
New tracks built
Price per One-Way Ticket
$2 -- $4
$2
Earliest Departure
5:06 a.m.
5:30 a.m.
Latest Arrival
10:18 p.m.
1:30 a.m.
Weekend Service
No
Yes

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