The Charlotte Area Transit System has recommended the city buy six modern Siemens S70 streetcars for the second phase of the Gold Line.
The S70 streetcars are hybrids, meaning they can operate for a short period on battery power, so the city won’t have to build overhead wiring on some parts of the line, such as the intersection of Trade and Tryon.
If City Council approves, CATS would spend $41 million on the streetcars, which would replace the green and yellow replica trolleys used today.
The original plan was to buy seven streetcars, with two of them used as spares.
But because initial bids on the 2.5-mile streetcar extension were much higher than projected, CATS has been cutting costs to get the streetcar under budget. Under the plan, there will be one streetcar in reserve.
Siemens is also the manufacturer of the Lynx Blue Line vehicles, which are also S70 vehicles.
The Gold Line S70 vehicles would be shorter. And CATS is still designing how the seats on the interior will be laid out on the Gold Line vehicles, so they might be different than in the Lynx Blue Line cars. The Gold Line vehicles could be used for the Blue Line if CATS ever needed extra capacity for large events.
CATS chose Siemens over another bidder, Pennsylvania-based Brookville. Switzerland-based Stadler, another manufacturer, originally expressed interest but did not submit a final proposal.
The first phase of the streetcar project opened last summer, a 1.5-mile trip from Spectrum Center to Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center.
The second phase will add 2.5 miles to the line, extending it to Sunnyside Avenue to the east and Johnson C. Smith University to the west. The budget for the second phase is $150 million, with the federal government paying half.
Construction is scheduled to begin Jan. 23. It’s scheduled to open in August 2020.
In July, the city opened bids from two construction firms that were significantly over the CATS budget for the Gold Line. One bid was more than 30 percent over budget, and the other was 40 percent too high.
A month later, the city recommended that the project be put out to bid again, though the city cut some work from the project. The city also made some changes, such as giving the contractor more flexibility to close streets. The city received four bids on Nov. 1.
CATS has recommended council members approve a bid from Johnson Bros. Corp. for $94.08 million – $29 million lower than lowest bid from July.
David McDonald, a transit planning manager for CATS, also said he thinks the contractors were willing to do the job for less.
“We think there was a little more hunger out there this time,” he said.
Republican council members Kenny Smith and Ed Driggs were worried Monday that the city doesn’t have enough of a contingency in case problems arise. It’s common on complicated rail projects for there to be change orders.
“It sounds like we’ll be up against it on our contingency,” Smith said. “I’m nervous we won’t be adequately covered.”
City engineer Jeb Blackwell said 85 percent of the city’s construction projects are finished with money still in the contingency budget. But he agreed with Smith that the second phase of the streetcar is more complicated than a typical project.
“There is risk in doing this,” he said. “We have had a lot of utility problems on the Blue Line Extension. Normally we are staying under the award amount. But I can also say 85 percent isn’t 100 percent.”
Having hybrid vehicles can allow CATS to avoid having overhead wires along all of the streetcar line.