CATS seeking millions for rail projects

The head of Charlotte's transit system will ask the federal government next month to give CATS millions of new dollars to help fund three rail projects, with the hope a deal could be struck in the waning days of the Bush administration.

CATS chief executive Keith Parker plans to ask the Federal Transit Administration to pay for up to 80 percent of the cost of extending the Lynx Blue Line to University City, a commuter train to the Lake Norman area, and improvements to the existing light-rail line.

The current assumption is that the FTA would pay for half of the Lynx extension, at most. The federal government has indicated it won't help pay for the commuter train.

Parker said the proposal is a long shot, but he's hoping to cash in on the success of Charlotte's light rail line, which has exceeded ridership projections since it opened last November.

He's also counting on help from the area's congressional delegation.

It's also possible the Bush administration might want to help Sen. Elizabeth Dole by steering federal money to Charlotte. Dole is fighting for re-election against Democratic challenger Kay Hagan in a close race.

Dole earlier this year helped CATS get an $18 million earmark to help pay for engineering work on the Lynx extension, and her office credits her with helping get more than $200 million to build the Lynx earlier this decade.

“We are going to put together a package and go for it,” Parker said.

Parker wants to bundle three projects. The first is an 11-mile extension of the Lynx to University City, which is now projected to cost $900 million. The commuter rail line to the Lake Norman area could cost between $250 and $310 million.

CATS is also penciling in $50million to improve the existing light rail line. It wants to extend station platforms to handle three-car trains and also wants to buy additional rail cars.

“CATS right now is seen as a real role model,” Parker said. “We are talking about a lot of money … but it's not New York City subway money.”

Parker is modeling his proposal after a similar transit package approved for the Utah Transit Agency earlier this decade. Senator Orrin Hatch helped the UTA get federal funding.

Parker said it's possible the federal government could very quickly tell him no. It could also begin negotiating, telling CATS it needs to spend more of its own money. Under the best-case scenario, Parker said a deal could be struck, outlining what CATS needs to do to secure the funding.

Parker is making his pitch at a time of great uncertainty in Washington, as Congress debates the $700 billion financial bailout. It's also unknown how much the new presidential administration will emphasize transit funding.

CATS currently has three rail projects moving forward, though slowly.

Engineering work is being done on both the commuter rail line and the Lynx extension, and the city of Charlotte is studying whether it can help pay for a streetcar through central Charlotte.

It may be difficult for CATS to build more than one project at a time, especially with the price of construction continuing to rise.

“If we keep getting 20 percent (construction) inflation annually, these projects become unbuildable,” Parker said.

When CATS built the $462.7million Lynx, the federal government paid for half. CATS and the state each paid 25 percent. The train is averaging more than 16,000 weekday trips – close to its 2025 goal of 18,100 weekday trips.

A spokesman for the FTA, Paul Griffo, said it is “premature” to comment on the CATS proposal.