CATS: Put light rail on faster track

After meeting with federal transit officials last week, CATS chief executive Keith Parker said he's still optimistic the federal government could pay up to 80 percent of the construction cost for new light-rail projects.

But if that request fails, Parker said he'll likely brainstorm other ways to raise money so rail lines can be built sooner.

Parker met last week with James Simpson, head of the Federal Transit Administration, about increasing Washington D.C.'s role in Charlotte transit projects. Parker said he hopes to have a tentative answer before the end of the Bush administration.

Parker asked the FTA to pay for 80 percent of the northeast light-rail extension, a commuter rail line to the Lake Norman area, and improvements to the existing light-rail line.

He said he'll drop his request for commuter rail funding, and concentrate on money for the Lynx Blue Line. Parker said the FTA told him it doesn't have enough money to fund all three.

“We will go back to them with a more modest request at this point,” Parker said.

The FTA paid for half of the construction costs on the Lynx Blue Line.

With the cost of raw materials rising, Parker believes it's important to build Charlotte's rapid transit in the next decade, rather than by 2035, the finish line in the current plan. If the federal government isn't willing to send more money to CATS, Parker said he may bring the Metropolitan Transit Commission and the Charlotte City Council options

Parker declined to say what those options might be. One possibility would be to borrow money through a bond.

“To speculate now won't be fair,” Parker said. “We will spend a lot of time looking at the various scenarios, and where we will be.”

There are currently three major transit projects being considered.

CATS wants to extend the Lynx Blue Line to the University City area, which Parker believes may cost $900 million. It wants to build a commuter rail line to the Lake Norman area, which could cost between $250 and $200 million. It also wants to build a streetcar through central Charlotte.

Much of the planning for the streetcar has been passed to the city of Charlotte, which has said it wants to begin construction early next decade, rather than 2018.

The city is studying how much economic impact the streetcar might bring, and how it could raise money to pay for it.

Some of the funding options include: Using some of the expected increase in property tax revenue, which is known as tax-increment financing. Another option is to float a bond, and the city could also levy a one-time assessment on property owners along the route.

“There will likely be three or four sources of funding,” said Peter Zieler, a transit station area development coordinator for the city. “We will hand the city a menu option: Here's how much it could generate. How do you want to fund it?”

During last year's debate over whether to keep or repeal the half-cent sales tax for mass transit, critics questioned whether the tax could pay for the ambitious transit plan. Mayor Pat McCrory, who is running for governor, said the city wouldn't “go outside” the tax to pay for transit.

McCrory said this week he doesn't want to consider a new tax or bond to build the transit system sooner. CATS already wants to use some property taxes to build the commuter rail line, and the city of Charlotte is considering the same for the streetcar.

“We'll have to live within the confines of the half-cent sales tax,” McCrory said. “During these economic times we'll have to be both economically and politically pragmatic. And at times, patient.”

Charlotte City Council woman Nancy Carter disagrees. She wants the streetcar for east Charlotte, and said it makes sense to build the transit system as soon as possible.

“It's only going to get more expensive,” she said.

CATS is watching how much money the half-cent sales tax generates in the slowing economy.

CATS had predicted it would grow, on average, by 5.75 percent annually. Earlier this year, it lowered that growth estimate to 4 percent for the next several years because of the economy.