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Where to put light-rail line?

The latest proposal for moving the proposed CATS Northeast light-rail line closer to revitalization targets on North Tryon Street isn't exactly a direct hit.

Planners came up with a Sugar Creek station site that would steer clear of historic properties at Sugar Creek Road near the North Carolina Railroad tracks, and would put the station closer to North Tryon Street.

Yet the new plan would probably cost an estimated $26 million more, siphon $21 million from North Tryon Street improvements and even limit access to some businesses there.

“We're continuing to do further study,” said Kelly Goforth, CATS assistant project manager.

The Sugar Creek station is proposed as the fifth of 15 stops along the Northeast line's 11-mile route from the center city to its ultimate destination at Interstate 485 and North Tryon Street. The line could be completed by 2015, and would allow riders to travel south all the way to I-485 in Pineville.

The Metropolitan Transit Commission adopted a route for the Northeast line in 2006. That route travels along the North Carolina Railroad with a station at the railroad's intersection with Sugar Creek Road. It continues along the tracks and meets with Tryon Street farther north at Eastway Drive.

When it adopted the route, the MTC also requested a study for an alternative route at Sugar Creek that would bring riders to Asian Corner Mall and other businesses on North Tryon Street.

An earlier proposal for the alternative route cut across industrial properties near Sugar Creek Road to tie in with North Tryon Street sooner than the adopted route.

As it turned out, the Republic Steel Corp. and Standard Chemicals properties might be eligible for historic designations, although they have none now. CATS could become ineligible for federal transportation funds if it disturbed historic properties. CATS hopes to get 50 percent of the line's construction costs from federal transportation funds.

CATS presented a revised plan to about 80 people at a public meeting Tuesday at Sugaw Creek Presbyterian Church. Maps show the alternative Sugar Creek station near Asian Corner, at Dorton Street, but not at the mall, as the earlier proposal put it.

If the alternative route is adopted, CATS expects to go back to the City Council for additional money to supplement the $21 million in economic development funds.

The city approved the money for either of two projects: construction of the alternative light-rail route at Sugar Creek or economic development on North Tryon Street between Sugar Creek Road and Old Concord Road.

A team of city officials from several departments is working to more completely identify the benefits and shortcomings of the adopted and alternative routes. Hearing comments at two public meetings last week was part of that process.

The evaluation team also wants to better understand the economic development potential for each route, measure the impact for businesses in the area and sharpen projected cost estimates for the alternative plan. The team expects to finish its evaluation in December.

Henry and Minique Johnson, owners of Minique Hair Designers and Hair Weaving on North Tryon Street, said they believe the path along the North Carolina Railroad is the best option for their business.

The alternative plan would limit access to their business as the tracks swing past Dorton Street and above the northbound lane of Tryon Street into the median, where it would continue its path north.

A wall that elevates the tracks in the median would limit turns from North Tryon Street and obstruct the view across the median. Motorists would have to drive beyond the wall and make a U-turn to access businesses beside it.

“People couldn't see us,” Henry Johnson said. “That would cut our business.”