Planning continues on both light rail and commuter rail lines
The Charlotte Area Transit System doesn't know if it will be able to expand light rail to the university area or commuter rail to the Lake Norman area anytime soon. Nonetheless, CATS governing board voted last night to spend up to $40 million in design costs for extending the LYNX light rail. Planning for commuter rail is almost complete. But many obstacles remain if construction is to begin on both projects. One of three things needs to happen if both lines move beyond the design phase in the next few years: the half-cent sales would need to rebound, the city could find another revenue source like a new tax, or CATS could receive stimulus money, although everyone agrees that's a long shot. The Metropolitan Transit Commission unanimously voted last night to spend millions more on planning for the light rail extension, while also trying to secure stimulus money to pay for commuter rail. Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory said it makes sense to move ahead with design plans for the light rail line because the project has a good chance of getting federal money. "If they did not tell us right now that we have some good leverage in meeting the federal guidelines to do the matching funds. I'd vote no right now. But based upon the assessment, it's a better assessment than we had on the South corridor at this time four or five years ago," said McCrory. CATS officials now anticipate extending the light rail line will cost between $928 million and $1.1 billion. Three years ago, it was expected to cost 741 million dollars. The new estimate still means 3-quarters of the project's price could be covered by the state and federal government. CATS says it has already spent about $10 million in local money to complete 15-percent of the line's design costs. It could spend another $36 million dollars in state and federal funds to finalize the plans. The MTC has the chance to evaluate the plans each year. On the other hand, planning for commuter rail to the Lake Norman area is nearly complete. That process has cost about $10 million in local money. The hope is that stimulus funds pay for the line completely. But CATS CEO Keith Parker acknowledges it's not the state's most pressing project. "We understand the Yadkin River bridge is the number one priority for the state in terms of those discretionary dollars, but in the event anything materializes that doesn't allow that project to move forward, we are ready to go within just a few months to start construction on the north corridor project," explains Parker. New estimates show that commuter rail would cost about $368 million. That's pretty close to initial projections. If federal stimulus money doesn't come through, CATS expects that cost would have to be paid for locally. If that's the case, Parker says CATS will have a better idea two years from now whether the sales tax is strong enough to begin construction on both projects or whether one line will be chosen over another.