CATS may get $18 million for light rail line to UNCC

The Charlotte Area Transit System could receive $18 million from Congress to help for a light rail extension – $8 million more than the transit agency requested.

If ultimately approved, the money would help pay for a $30 million engineering and design contract that's laying the groundwork for extending the Lynx Blue Line from uptown to the University City area.

The ability to get extra money is a sign that the success of the city's light-rail line has been recognized in Washington, Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory said. It also suggests that gas at $4 a gallon is changing congressional views on the merits of rapid transit projects, possibly making it easier to receive federal matching funds.

The 11.5-mile extension is at the beginning of a long and complicated process.

Engineering work began earlier this year, and CATS expects to assess whether the project is still viable next spring.

By the summer of 2010, CATS expects to have much of the final design ready, and then will wait to see if the Federal Transit Administration will help pay for construction.

The FTA paid for half the construction of the $462.7 million Lynx, which opened in November.

The extension is expected to cost at least $800 million. It would be extremely difficult to build without federal and state assistance.

The federal money would free up cash now slated for the engineering study to help pay for rising fuel costs for its buses, or could be used it for capital projects.

CATS also is considering building a commuter rail line to the Lake Norman area and a streetcar through central Charlotte.

McCrory, a Republican who is running for governor, has championed the city's transit plans.

He credited Republican Sens. Elizabeth Dole and Richard Burr for helping get the money from the Senate Appropriations Committee for Transportation, Housing and Urban Development.