CATS restores $10 million in projects to light-rail extension

With its budget outlook brighter, the Charlotte Area Transit System is restoring about $10 million in projects – including a parking deck and additional ticket vending machines – to the light-rail extension that had been cut four years ago.

In 2010, when CATS was concerned with whether it could afford to build the Blue Line extension, the transit system removed some features to save money, including a parking deck at the Sugar Creek Station.

The transit system said most of the contracts for the $1.1 billion rail line have been awarded and prices have been more favorable than projected. The city said bids came in 14 percent lower than expected.

The City Council will consider the changes at its May 27 meeting.

The biggest improvement will be at the planned Sugar Creek Station. CATS originally planned a deck at the station but eliminated it in favor of two surface parking lots.

Now, CATS will spend about $2.6 million to restore the deck. The transit system said the surface parking lots would have had the same number of spaces but would have been farther from the station, possibly resulting in fewer riders.

“The surface lots provided sufficient parking, but they moved the majority of spaces to a less convention location. ... Our experience on the South Corridor indicates that these remote spaces are less likely to be utilized,” CATS said in a city memo.

CATS hasn’t bought the extra land that would have been needed for the larger surface lot.

At some stations on the 7-year-old Blue Line – including Tyvola and Arrowood – remote surface spaces are rarely if ever used.

If CATS hadn’t restored the projects, it would have saved only $2.5 million because most of the extension is covered by federal and state grants.

There are other improvements to the rail line.

CATS planned on buying 18 new rail cars for the extension, but it purchased 22 instead. The extra cars will allow CATS to increase capacity during busy periods.

“These additional vehicles stress the capacity of the existing South Boulevard light-rail maintenance facility,” CATS said.

“These were all in the original project,” said Olaf Kinard, director of marketing and communications for CATS.

The biggest cut to the project won’t be restored, however.

CATS originally planned for the light-rail extension to run to Interstate 485, but the line will stop at UNC Charlotte. That cut saved CATS about $200 million.

Recently, CATS has started major construction work on the extension, which is expected to be a more complicated project than the original rail line along South Boulevard. CATS hopes it will open to passengers in the spring of 2017.

In a memo, CATS said challenges remain to finish on time.

It said moving public and private utilities has been difficult and that it will need more “construction coordination” from consultant HNTB to help multiple contractors.

The City Council may consider more funding for HNTB in June. CATS said any additional spending would come from savings already realized from project bids.

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