June 26, 2014

Charlotte commuter train price jumps by $215M

The Charlotte Area Transit System projects that building a commuter train to Lake Norman would cost $215 million more than expected – a price hike that will likely make it too costly to build.

The Charlotte Area Transit System projects that building a commuter train to Lake Norman would cost $215 million more than expected – a price hike that will likely make it too costly to build.

CATS had long planned to use Norfolk Southern freight tracks that parallel Interstate 77 for the Red Line passenger train. It would connect Charlotte with Huntersville, Cornelius, Davidson and Mooresville.

But two years ago, the railroad company said it didn’t want to share its rails with CATS. That left the transit authority scrambling for another plan.

CATS released a study Wednesday about how it could build a new rail line beside the Norfolk Southern track. But that would increase the line’s cost – estimated at $416 million – by more than 50 percent.

The 26-mile project has long been on life support. It doesn’t qualify for federal funding because ridership projections are too low. CATS also doesn’t have enough money to build the train line on its own.

It’s unclear what will happen next. The Metropolitan Transit Commission discussed the study Wednesday night but did not take any formal vote to disband work on the line.

Without having access to the existing rail line, CATS would have to build a parallel track, costing more than $200 million in construction and right-of-way purchases.

That would have a “significant impact” on costs, according to a CATS memo. It would also encroach on the towns it’s supposed to serve because it would require the complete rebuilding of all intersections with roads.

CATS said that would cause “multiple disruptions to adjacent communities.”

In Huntersville, for instance, CATS said that Main Street might have to be removed completely for the Red Line to exist alongside the freight tracks.

Davidson Mayor John Woods said he’s not giving up on the project.

“We’re not going away,” Woods said. “It’s too important for the region.”

But he added that the study is a serious setback as it “blows up an already complicated financial situation.”

The memo doesn’t lay out a scenario in which CATS would still pursue the project if it had to build a new rail bed.

Instead, CATS said it would hope the state would find a compromise with Norfolk Southern.

CATS chief development officer John Muth said the rail line in question – known as the O-line – is little used by Norfolk Southern today. The company instead uses the N.C. Railroad, which runs along Interstate 85, as its primary way of moving freight between Charlotte and Greensboro.

But the N.C. Department of Transportation owns that line, and Norfolk Southern pays the state for the right to use it. The railroad, Muth said, wants the O-line as a backup in case it’s unable to continue an agreement with the DOT.

“Norfolk Southern has said they need an answer to the question of permanence,” Muth said.

The railroad recently opened a new intermodal yard at Charlotte Douglas Airport, which can increase the amount of freight it moves through Charlotte.

Norfolk Southern’s position on using its tracks hasn’t changed. Two years ago, the railroad said the current plan for the Red Line was “fatally flawed.”

The report is disappointing to north Mecklenburg towns, but CATS is still moving forward with two other major rail projects.

Construction has begun on a $1.1 billion extension of the Lynx Blue Line to UNC Charlotte. The city of Charlotte and CATS are also building a streetcar through center city.

Meanwhile, the N.C. Department of Transportation is also planning to widen I-77 by adding toll lanes – a controversial project that has ignited significant opposition. That project could be finished by 2018.

Woods, the Davidson mayor, said he thought that CATS could still improve transit in north Mecklenburg, even without commuter rail. One option might be to add bus rapid transit on I-77 after construction is complete.

A state official said Wednesday’s news should have little impact on the Gateway Station, the long-delayed bus and rail transit center state and city officials want to build on the site of the Trade Street Greyhound station.

The $150 million-plus plan calls for a modern transit hub anchoring a 23-acre office, residential and retail development. It was planned as the southern end point for the Red Line, and would also handle Amtrak, city buses and possibly the expansion of the city’s planned east-west streetcar line.

But, as of March, state officials leading the project hadn’t secured the money to pay for it or Norfolk Southern’s consent to use its tracks uptown. Officials with the railroad company and the N.C. Department of Transportation told the Observer in March that Norfolk Southern would be hiring consultants to study the feasibility and cost of track changes needed to accommodate the station.

Paul Worley, director of the DOT’s rail division, said via email Thursday that the agency is working with Norfolk Southern to begin the study, but the Red Line wasn’t included in those efforts “as we have no viable plan” for the commuter rail line now. Staff writer Eric Frazier contributed.

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