CATS hopes to avoid construction pitfalls

As it prepares for major construction on the Lynx Blue Line extension, the Charlotte Area Transit System hopes its experience in building and operating the city’s first light-rail line will make the expansion go smoother.

The first light-rail line along South Boulevard cost more than the transit system’s agreed-upon price with the federal government, and CATS had to pay all of the cost overruns – roughly $35 million.

Transit officials say they are confident the extension to University City won’t exceed the $1.16 billion price signed in the fall of 2012.

“I have a high level of confidence we will meet our budget,” said Danny Rogers, CATS project director for the extension.

The 9.3-mile project is scheduled to open in the spring of 2017.

When CATS built the 9.6-mile light-rail line along South Boulevard, Archer-Western won two major contracts for construction: to build the stations and civil work along the line, including laying track. Another contractor was hired to build the overhead wire system and the power stations that send electricity to the trains.

For the South Boulevard rail line, CATS switched its designer in midstream after problems with the project, replacing Parsons Transportation Group with another firm, STV.

The extension is considered harder to build, in part because much of the line is being built in the median of North Tryon Street. The section of the line closer to uptown will be built along other rail lines, which also complicates the project, CATS said.

For the extension, CATS has divided the work into smaller pieces and has brought more contractors to the job.

The extension has been divided into three segments: A, B and C.

Segment A is closest to uptown. That $107 million civil engineering contract was awarded by the City Council in January to a joint venture between Balfour Beatty and Blythe Development.

CATS said it made sure contractors that bid on Segment A had experience working along other rail lines.

“We could prequalify bidders,” Rogers said. “Anyone who bid on A had to have experience working with railroad companies.”

Council members awarded a construction contract for segments B and C April 14. Lane Construction won that contract for $119 million.

Unlike the first light-rail line, the contract to lay rails will be included with the contract to install power stations and the overhead wires. Balfour Beatty Infrastructure was awarded that $130.8 million contract in April.

Rogers said by breaking the contracts into smaller pieces, CATS could get more companies interested in bidding.

“The feedback we got is that contracts in the $100 (million) to $150 million range is a desirable market,” he said. “You can get local groups, but it’s big enough to get national firms interested. We got some really good bids on these.”

The federal government is scheduled to pay half of the $1.16 billion Blue Line Extension budget. The N.C. Department of Transportation has agreed to pay $299 million, and CATS and the city of Charlotte will spend $271 million.

While CATS is confident the extension will meet that budget, its cost has increased significantly.

In 2007, when voters decided overwhelmingly to keep the half-cent sales tax for transit, the cost of the line was pegged at $700 million. Under that price, the extension would have reached Interstate 485.

But over the next five years, the cost steadily increased. CATS decided in 2010 to stop the line at UNC Charlotte rather than building to the outerbelt, with a park-and-ride lot for commuters. That saved about $200 million.