Design work for the $1.6 billion Blue Line extension is more than 95 percent finished, and the city has closed on 261 of the 312 pieces of land it must buy for the light-rail line to University City.
Up next: the start of major construction, which is penciled in for March.
Work has recently started on moving underground utilities, building retaining walls and doing grading and drainage work for the line, according to a presentation to the Charlotte City Council on Monday.
When finished, the Charlotte Area Transit System’s Blue Line Extension will run from uptown to the UNC Charlotte campus, covering 9.3 miles.
Combined with the south line, it will give commuters nearly 19 connected miles of light-rail service from Pineville to the University area.
The current schedule calls for the line to be test-started in December 2016. It would open to the public in spring 2017.
The city warned about possible traffic problems, especially along North Tryon Street, where the rail line will be built in the median of the thoroughfare.
Charlotte has so far spent $69.7 million acquiring real estate out of a budget of $121.4 million. The rest of the land it needs is expected to bought by the end of the month.
The extension will require CATS to buy 22 new light-rail vehicles costing $96.2 million. Four of those vehicles will be delivered to CATS by Siemens in November. That will allow CATS to have more three-car trains on the existing Blue Line.
The city hasn’t yet selected contractors for the majority of construction work, which is budgeted for $558 million. The city has already spent nearly $80 million – from a budget of $187 million – for professional services, such as design work and planning.
A single contractor, Archer-Western, built the entire existing light-rail line. For the extension, CATS plans to divvy up the contracts.
CATS plans to award a civil construction contract for segment A, which will run from uptown to Old Concord Road. The transit system will have a separate contract for segments B and C, which will run from Old Concord Road to UNC Charlotte. Those contracts will be awarded this year.
John Muth, chief development officer for CATS, said the project has a number of engineering challenges that weren’t present for the current line. Among them: burying 36th Street in NoDa and elevating the rail tracks, which will make the intersection safer.
The cost of the extension also has risen, from an estimated $700 million in 2007 to $1.1 billion today. Because of a lack of money, the rail line has also shrunk in length. It was originally going to stop at Interstate 485 in northeast Charlotte but will now end at UNC Charlotte.
In their presentation Monday, city officials said they plan to keep an aggressive construction schedule. They said there would be incentive payments for the early completion of key tasks and that the city would seek damages if the project falls behind.
Average daily ridership for the light-rail line has been between 14,000 and 15,000 passenger trips. That was more than projected for the early years, though ridership has been stable for the last five years.
The light-rail line has contributed to new development, particularly in the South End. The city estimates that 773 new residential units have been built along the line and 1,887 units are under construction.
Council members also heard an update on the city’s efforts to extend the streetcar to Johnson C. Smith University in the west and to the Elizabeth neighborhood to the east.
City Manager Ron Carlee’s plan is to apply for a federal Small Starts grant in September. To move forward with the grant application, the city has proposed spending $12 million on engineering work for the line. Council members will vote on that expense at their Jan. 27 meeting.
The total cost of the streetcar extension is $126 million. The city has set aside $63 million from reserve funds and is seeking $63 million in federal grants.
Some council members were concerned about spending more money without a guarantee the project will be funded. “Maybe we should know in advance what we would do if we (don’t get the federal money),” said Republican Ed Driggs.
When seeking federal funding, Carlee said it’s common to have to spend some money up front.
“This isn’t different from the Blue Line,” Carlee said. “If you want to get federal funds you have to get your skin in the game to compete.”
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