The Charlotte Area Transit System has compiled a list of projects costing $110 million it hopes could be eligible for any short-term economic stimulus package Congress might pass.
CATS and other transit agencies hope that any stimulus package would include money for mass transit, which could be part of “green infrastructure” discussed by President-Elect Barack Obama and the Democratic-led Congress. The Charlotte list includes such items as new buses, train cars and improvements to the light-rail line.
“There has been a lot of talk about a stimulus, and we're prepared to jump on that,” said CATS chief executive Keith Parker. “We have a list of things that can go right away.”
Parker has been trying to put CATS in a favorable position for any new transit dollars. He made a long-shot pitch this fall for the federal government to pay for 80 percent of the construction costs for a light-rail extension to the University City area, an effort that was unsuccessful. He hopes the effort will raise Charlotte's profile with the Federal Transit Administration, which doles out funding for new rail projects.
Jeffrey Boothe, a city of Charlotte lobbyist in Washington, said it's unclear whether a stimulus package might be approved next week, or whether it would be delayed until Obama and the new Congress come to power. He said transit agencies and state highway departments have been compiling lists of projects that could start in three to four months.
The American Public Transportation Association has been lobbying for transit funding to be included.
“We're optimistic there would be spending on infrastructure,” said Paul Dean, director of government relations for APTA. “Transit agencies have projects that have already been designed and engineered. They are just lacking an influx in funds.”
Dean said any rail construction project would help the construction industry, and new orders for buses or train cars would help those manufacturers. CATS buys its rail cars from the German firm Siemens, which manufactures them in the U.S.
CATS is currently working on three large projects: A light-rail extension to University City, a commuter rail line to the Lake Norman area and a streetcar through central Charlotte. Because those projects are still being designed, it's unlikely they would be eligible for short-term stimulus money.
But Parker said some improvements to the Lynx Blue Line could get started in 2009, such as lengthening station platforms and buying new ticket-vending machines. He also said CATS could improve the bus garage on North Davidson Street.
It's unclear how the money would be allocated. Some early drafts of stimulus bills have had the transit money being disbursed through traditional funding formulas. It's also possible much of the funds could be dedicated by earmarks, turning the process into a political free-for-all.
While CATS and other transit officials are focused on the short-term stimulus, they hope the Obama administration might make more money available to transit long-term.
CATS hopes the Federal Transit Administration receives more money, and then relaxes its funding formula to make it easier for commuter rail and streetcars to receive funds. CATS is working under the assumption that its commuter rail and streetcar project won't receive any money from Washington.
The N.C. Department of Transportation also has projects that could be built quickly, said Calvin Leggett, manager of program development. But any new funding would likely be dedicated to projects that are in jeopardy of being cut, or at least postponed, because of falling revenues.
Road money from gas taxes and other fees is down 8-9 percent compared with 2007, Leggett said.