Tuesday, May 19, 2009

How the state will pay for the outerbelt

N.C. Transportation Secretary Gene Conti is scheduled to be in Charlotte Wednesday, where he will discuss with planning officials ways to finish the outerbelt faster, per Governor Bev Perdue's pledge.

I haven't seen the plan, but I understand it's pretty simple:

1) Postpone construction on Independence Boulevard.

2) Use some money programmed for the Monroe Connector/Bypass.

Conti's plan apparently doesn't call for using $20 million in stimulus money, which could be a small carrot to Mecklenburg in exchange for having the $176 million Independence Boulevard project delayed. Using about $50 million in Monroe funds won't necessarily delay that project. The N.C. Turnpike Authority believes it can still build the road with state funds and tolls.

Will the Mecklenburg Union Metropolitan Planning Organization go for an outerbelt-Independence Boulevard swap?

This proposal isn't exactly what many envisioned when Perdue pledged construction on I-485 would begin this year. But Conti has been getting solid reviews from many Charlotteans, who appreciate his willingness to spend time in the Queen City.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Northern route chosen for Garden Parkway

The N.C. Turnpike Authority has recommended the "northern route" for the Garden Parkway - toll road linking Charlotte/Douglas International Airport with south Gaston County.

The Draft Environmental Impact Statement recommended Alternative 9 as the path for the toll road, which could cost as much as $1.5 billion.

The description of the route, according to the authority's press release: "Alternative 9 begins at I-485 just west of the Charlotte-Douglas International Airport and moves northwest with an interchange at NC 273 (Southpoint Road), a corridor described locally as the “Northern Route.” From there, the project moves southwest with interchanges at NC 279 (South New Hope Road) and NC 274 (Union Road). It then moves west staying south of Union New Hope Road with interchanges at Bud Wilson Road, Linwood Road, Robinson Road and US 321."

The road is scheduled to open to traffic in 2014.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Garden Parkway announcement Friday

The N.C. Turnpike Authority said it will announce its recommended route for the Garden Parkway Friday morning.

The authority will release the federally approved environmental documents for the toll road, as well as its choice for where the road should go.

The toll road will begin at I-85 east of Gastonia. It will loop through south Gaston County, cross the Catawba River and end at I-485 in Mecklenburg near Charlotte/Douglas International Airport.

Announcing the preferred route is a big step. But with the road's cost at more than $1.2 billion, construction may be delayed. N.C. Transportation Secretary Gene Conti has said the road might not be a priority.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

CATS' three big questions

CATS chief executive Keith Parker said one of these three things needs to happen for the northeast light-rail extension and the north corridor commuter rail line to be built at the same time, early next decade.

1) The north corridor receives federal stimulus dollars.

2) The economy roars back, and revenue from the half-cent sales tax surges.

3) New revenues. This could be another dedicated tax, or perhaps a bond issue.

What are the odds of any happening?

STIMULUS: CATS admits its stimulus bid faces long odds. The reason is that the N.C. Department of Transportation is also applying for some of the same pot of money, a $1.5 billion discretionary fund. The DOT and Gov. Bev Perdue want the money to replace the Interstate 85 bridge over the Yadkin River.

Logic says the DOT will bigfoot any CATS proposal. But no one knows what the criteria will be for the stimulus funds. The Obama administration has already shown it favors "green" projects. The bridge might not make it, while the rail project could be just the type of project the federal government would want to showcase.

(Then again, the Yadkin bridge is a major safety issue. It would fit in nicely with the administration's "rebuilding America" theme.)

Here's an interesting scenario: What if CATS gets stimulus funds, but not the entire $300 million it's hoping for? What if it snags only $75 million?

CATS would still a balance of $300 million to build the north corridor. Paying that balance could leave the transit system's bank account nearly empty, unable to pay for the light-rail extension.

SALES TAX BOOST: The economy will have to do more than recover for there to be enough money to cover nearly $1.5 billion in new projects in the next three years. It will have to sizzle, as it did from 2003-2006.

CATS projects the sales tax will generate $269 million less over the next decade than forecast three years ago. That assumed the tax would grow at a rate of 5.75 percent a year.

When asked how much the sales tax would have to grow for CATS to build both lines, Parker declined to speculate.

Even if CATS makes up the $269 million shortfall, the cost of the two projects has increased. In the old plan, the two projects were going to cost $1 billion. Now the bill is about $1.5 billion. (Part of the increase is due to CATS building both phases of the north corridor at the same time, rather than pushing back some construction until 2018.)

NEW REVENUE: Talk of a new sales tax is officially on. The Mecklenburg County Commission will discuss the issue Tuesday - the first step towards a second half-cent tax.

The N.C. House this week approved a bill that allows a number of urban N.C. counties to levy a transit sales tax, just as Mecklenburg did in 1998. Mecklenburg is left out of this bill.

County Commission chairwoman Jennifer Roberts wants Mecklenburg to be included.

"I want the option," Roberts said Tuesday.

Any new debate over a second sales tax will be, um, interesting. In 2007, CATS the existing half-cent could build all the planned transit lines by 2030.

On Thursday, County Commissioner Bill James sent an e-mail discussing the "R" word - repeal.

"Technically, bringing back up transit with a tax increase could allow those opposed to run another ‘repeal’ drive," James wrote. "There is no ballot restriction on how often a repeal effort could be put on the ballot."

Game on.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

New light rail cost: $1.12 billion

The 11-mile extension of the Lynx Blue Line to University City could cost as much as $1.12 billion, the Charlotte Area Transit System said Wednesday evening.

That estimate is a 50 percent increase from the 2006 projection of $741 million. Despite the steep escalation, CATS said the project still appears to be a good candidate for federal funding. CATS chief executive Keith Parker said CATS should continue working to design the line, which could open in 2016.

CATS also unveiled a cost for the north corridor, a commuter rail line to the Lake Norman area. That project will cost between $368 and $375 million. That's in line with previous estimates.

CATS said the Lynx extension could cost $928 million, but that price wouldn't include enhancements that CATS said are needed to handle the number of expected passengers. That includes six extra train cars, longer platforms to handle three-car trains and more room for pedestrians.

The Lynx extension will be much more complicated to build than the original light-rail line, which opened in 2007. That line cost $48 million per mile. The extension could cost more than $100 million per mile.

CATS was pleased with the cost estimates for the two projects. But building them both will likely be difficult.

The most recent long-range plan, approved in 2006, called for the north corridor to be built first, followed a year later by the Lynx extension. But CATS can't build both at the same time because its finances have been battered by the recession.

CATS could begin construction on the commuter train by the end of the year. But Parker said he wants to wait at least a year until the engineering on the Lynx extension is finished.

Parker said the two lines can be built simultaneously if CATS receives federal stimulus dollars for the north corridor. That may be difficult because it's competing with a N.C. Department of Transportation request to replace the Interstate 85 Yadkin River bridge from the same pot of money. CATS will apply for that money this fall, and should learn if its application has been approved by the end of the year.

The other options for building the train lines at the same time would be if the half-cent sales tax rebounds, and CATS coffers fill with new dollars. Parker also said CATS could build the lines if it receives "new revenues."

That likely means a new tax. One possibility is a quarter-cent sales tax that N.C. counties can levy for any purpose. That would require approval by Mecklenburg voters.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A new director for Charlotte Trolley

The non-profit group Charlotte Trolley has hired Andrea Feay as its new executive director, replacing Ron Tober, who is working for the transit system in Seattle.

Charlotte Trolley is the caretaker of the city’s streetcar heritage. It markets weekend trolley service on the Lynx Blue Line and it also operates a trolley museum near the Bland Street light-rail station.

Feay, who relocated to Charlotte from South Bend, Ind., where she led Southold Dance Theater. A graduate of Notre Dame, the university established in 2005 the Andrea Feay Award for Excellence in Community Service.

Tober is the former chief executive of the Charlotte Area Transit System. He stepped down in December 2007 and then headed Charlotte Trolley. He left a year later to become a consultant for the Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority.

The historic trolley operates on weekends from Atherton Mill to uptown. The Charlotte Area Transit System operates the service.

Monday, April 20, 2009

After driving overseas, our unfinished outerbelt isn't such a big deal

The blog has been inactive due to a two-week vacation in Greece. But since this is a column about traffic, I'm sharing a few rentar-car adventures from the country that apparently has the EU's highest fatality rate.

The Greek motorways were fine. And the mountain roads weren't too dangerous - everyone seemed aware of their own mortality and drove accordingly. But many of the country’s roads would not be loved here in Queen City.

The highways that are one tier below motorway were a problem. They have two lanes each, with both lanes about 14 feet, compared with U.S. lanes that are between 10 and 12 feet. There are also 6-foot shoulders. This counts as a four-lane highway.

The middle of the road is no-man's land, used by drivers on both sides to pass at will. The speed limit was often 90 km/hr, and everyone was easily clocking 120 - despite the fact that police were everywhere. (Not sure if this was an Easter Crackdown, or a The Country is Broke and We Need Money Crackdown, but something was going on.) So you have two options: Obey the law and be stampeded. Or go with the flow and get pulled over, which was my fate. Good times.

Still having some readjustment issues back in Charlotte. I was driving in my neighborhood, and saw a sedan in my rear-view mirror. Had to fight the urge the jerk my car onto the grassy knoll to let someone pass.

Other thoughts:

The Greeks founded democracy and have perfected graffiti. Highway signs looked like the No. 6 train circa 1976.

I’m fascinated by the ruins of Greece. Not necessarily the UNESCO World Heritage Sites sites such as Delphi, but the thousands of half-finished concrete buildings that line the highways. These ensure that future generations of tourists will have new archeological sites to discover.

The latest Michelin map shows the E65 motorway as complete through the Peloponese. It is not. Instead the highway ends abruptly south of Tripoli, where you enter switchback hell. Especially fun at dusk.

A good way to test the foundation of your marriage is to drive inside the city of Athens with two children in the backseat. Was this a hidden source of power for ancient Athenians? Did the Persians actually defeat them at Marathon and breach their city, only to get lost and go home?

On the island of Santorini, I rented a Fiat Punto, an apparent homage to the Pinto. The Punto’s backdoors only open by placing your fingers in the middle of the latch, then pulling up violently, the rental car agent demonstrated. This did not instill confidence in the Obama’s administration to save Chrysler by marrying it with the maker of the Punto.

A stimulus start

Construction on one of the region's first stimulus highway projects is scheduled to begin Monday, April 27.

The N.C. Department of Transportation said it will begin widening N.C. 51 from Downs Circle in Pineville to the S.C. state line - an $8.3 million project awarded to Blythe Development.

The one-mile segment of highway will be widened from two lanes to four lanes, with a median in between. Expected completion date: November 2010.

The N.C. 51 widening project was scheduled for construction this spring, but without the stimulus it would have been delayed for lack of funds.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Cooling on the Garden Parkway?

The N.C. Turnpike Authority says it will release the final environmental documents for Gaston County's Garden Parkway in mid or late April. The authority also will make a recommendation for the expressway's route - a decision eagerly awaited throughout the county.

But N.C. Transportation Secretary Gene Conti - who also chair's the Turnpike Authority's Board of Directors - cautioned Friday that the parkway isn't a sure thing.

He said the project is extremely expensive - at least $1.2 billion - and the traffic forecasts don't project as many cars as the outerbelt in Raleigh or the Monroe Connector/Bypass, two other turnpike projects.

The parkway funding plan calls for much of the project to be paid for by tolls, and the rest to be paid for with a $35 million annual appropriation from the General Assembly. Conti warned Friday in a meeting with The Observer's editorial board that if the parkway doesn't produce enough toll revenue, "Then you would create a bigger (fiancial) gap." Conti is also chairman of the Turnpike Authority's Board of Directors.

If more money were needed, the DOT would have to pick up the tab.

Even with a one-time injection of stimulus dollars, the DOT doesn't have much money. Conti said that March contract lettings were about $15 million this year. Six years ago, he said the state was putting $100 million worth of work to bid in a month.

The parkway - scheduled to open in 2014 - is backed by a number of Gaston officials, who believe it will relieve congestion on Interstate 85 and tie the county closer economically to Charlotte.

But transportation experts have doubts. They have questioned whether the parkway money should instead go to other projects such as finishing Charlotte's outerbelt or widening I-77.

A Connecticut consultant hired by the N.C. Turnpike Authority wrote in 2006 that I-85 "traffic volumes were quite heavy, approaching the capacity of the facility ... . However, under 2006 conditions, relatively little congestion was found."

The consultant projects the parkway will carry about 40,000 cars a day at the Catawba crossing by 2030, and between 13,000 and 18,000 cars per day west of U.S. 321.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

McCrory questions CATS stimulus plans

Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory isn't happy with the federal stimulus package. The money for highways is too little, he thinks, and what money has been allocated is being spent on projects that are too small and inconsequential.

McCrory Wednesday switched gears, questioning how the Charlotte Area Transit System plans to spend its roughly $20 million in stimulus dollars. McCrory thinks the money should be dedicated towards one of the system's big projects - perhaps the north corridor commuter rail line or the streetcar. CATS chief executive Keith Parker wants to spend it on rehabbing a bus maintenance garage, sprucing up the main bus station across from Time Warner Cable Arena and expanding some park-and-ride lots.

At Wednesday's meeting of the Metropolitan Transit Commission, McCrory asked about the bus garage. Parker said money to improve the garage used to be in the budget, but was taken out. McCrory's response, in so many words: That might mean it's not important.

Parker admitted the garage isn't a "sexy" project. But he said the nearly 30-year-old building is in dire need of improvement. It's difficult to heat and cool, he said, and improving the building will allow CATS to perform more maintenance on-site, saving money.

It should be noted that transit systems nationwide often spend freely to expand and then neglect their infrastructure. Then when everything starts breaking, they are broke. So Parker's plans are prudent, though not exciting.

But the discussion came minutes after a curious presentation from the engineering firm URS. It is lobbying CATS to build a short streetcar line from the arena to Presbyterian Hopsital. URS - apparently hungry for work - said the starter streetcar line would cost $30 million. CATS already has laid tracks on Elizabeth Avenue, so if it spent stimulus dollars, it would only need $10 million extra.

Parker recommended against it. One reason: The line wouldn't go very far, and CATS would have to spend $1 million to operate it.

But here's another idea. CATS laid tracks on Elizabeth Avenue that aren't being used. Why couldn't CATS install more streetcar track in phases but not operate it until it has a line long enough to span across uptown?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Gas is cheap. But we're not going anywhere.

Americans continued driving less in January, logging 7 billion fewer miles, or 3.1 percent less, compared to the same month a year earlier. That's the first consecutive decline for January since 1981-1982, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The decline in driving began in December 2007 - the same time the recession began.

Ohio had the biggest state drop for January, at 10.2 percent. Miles driven in North Carolina was down 2.1 percent, and down 2.5 percent in South Carolina.

Thirteen states in the west posted an increase of .2 percent. California had the biggest increase for January, at 2.7 percent.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

I-485: Still no plan

The plan to accelerate construction on the last piece of Charlotte's outerbelt still isn't much of a plan.

A recap: Last month, Gov. Bev Perdue was in Mint Hill to tout the repaving of N.C. 218, a road project funded with stimulus dollars. During her press conference, Perdue said construction on the last segment of I-485 in northeast Mecklenburg would begin at the end of the year. It's not scheduled for construction until 2015, so that's big news. Transportation Secretary Gene Conti, also at the media event, backed up his boss, saying construction would start by the end of 2009.

I wouldn't be surprised if Perdue, eager to show Charlotte some love, jumped the gun in her announcement. One clue is that Conti didn't yet have any details during a Charlotte visit Wednesday, even after questioned directly by Matthews Mayor Lee Myers and Charlotte city council member Anthony Foxx.

Myers and Foxx, as members of the Mecklenburg Union Metropolitan Planning Organization, had to decide Wednesday night whether to spend $20.5 million in stimulus money on local road projects, such as widening N.C. 73 in Huntersville, or whether to dedicate the money to the outerbelt.

They asked the secretary if they didn't spend the money on the outerbelt, would construction begin this year?

Conti: "It means it's harder. It doesn't mean it can't be done."

He said later that it's "our challenge to ID those resources (to build it)."

Conti has said one possibility to fund the $220 million outerbelt segment would be to use some money socked away to build the Monroe Connector/Bypass. The legislature last summer voted to help fund that road, freeing as much as $180 million.

Conti said one possibility is that some stimulus dollars from other states may come to N.C. if those states can't spend them fast enough. (Not sure if it's going to happen. I have a feeling states will be able to spend their highway dollars, even if it's not on the best projects.)

It's quite possible work will begin on the outerbelt in late 2009 or early 2010, as Perdue has pledged. But Conti didn't seem as confident Wednesday as he did last month in Mint Hill.

MUMPO ultimately voted Wednesday night to spend its money on local projects. Several members were skeptical whether the state will find the money to build the road quickly.

"I’m disappointed we are being asked to fund one of the governmor’s earmarks," said Weddington Mayor Nancy Anderson. "The governor committed - she doesn't need to take our money."

New roads chief wades into old fight

North Carolina Transportation Secretary Gene Conti, in Charlotte Wednesday afternoon, offered his thoughts on the much-maligned equity formula that distributes highway dollars.

"There is evidence that it’s helped rural NC develop faster," said Conti, speaking to the Charlotte Regional Alliance for Transportation. "In a high-growth area, the resources haven’t been there that were desired and necessary."

Conti even suggested a way for the equity formula to be tweaked. Currently 25 percent of highway funds are for "intrastate miles" that need to be improved. That generally favors rural areas.

Conti said when the system is 90 percent complete, those funds will expire, and would be divvied up by other ways, including population. That would help Charlotte.

He suggested changing that threshold to, say, 70 percent or 80 percent. That day would arrive much sooner.

(Conti also stressed that urban areas such as Charlotte benefit from the urban loop fund, which has built almost all of Interstate 485. Rural counties can't tap into those funds.)

Conti's opinion is just that - an opinion. Any change would be made by the General Assembly, and rural legislators will fight to keep the stautus quo.

But the comments were nonetheless surprising. In 18 months covering transportation, I never heard the former secretary, Lyndo Tippett, question the formula.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Here's the plan for the last of our stimulus money. Charlotte won't be happy.

The North Carolina Department of Transportation engineer who oversees the Charlotte region detailed Thursday how he plans to spend the last $10.6 million of stimulus money for the area.

* $4 million for the widening of N.C. 73 in Huntersville, east of Interstate 77. That project is already penciled in for $14 million in stimulus money.

* $1.6 million for a bridge replacement in Anson County. Barry Moose, division engineer with the N.C. DOT's Division 10, said one reason that project is moving forward is because the state has pushed for some of the stimulus money to be in economically depressed areas.

* $3.5 million to improve Morehead Road by Lowe's Motor Speedway. The road will be widened from three to five lanes.

* $1.5 million to cover and protect steel bridges spanning Interstate 77. The bridges will be repainted and protected from corrosion.

These projects total $10.6 million. In February, Moose announced five stimulus projects totaling $38.5 million, and earlier this month another list of $20.5 million in projects was announced.

At Monday's Charlotte City Council meeting, some council members were upset that more stimulus money isn't going to road projects inside the city limits.

N.C. DOT's Division 10 is Mecklenburg, Cabarrus, Union, Stanly and Anson counties.

Out of the division's $70 million in stimulus money, about $32.5 million is going to
Mecklenburg. The next biggest chunk is $17 million to repave N.C. 218, which includes a sliver of Mecklenburg by I-485.

The city of Charlotte, however, is only getting $4 million, plus some of the $1.5 million to improve the bridge spans over I-77.

It's easy to dismiss projects in rural Stanly and Anson counties as having no benefit to the average Charlotte motorist. But projects in north Mecklenburg, or Cabarrus or Union county can have a big impact because they are all part of the same metro area.

Moose said he understands Charlotte's concern as to whether it's getting enough money compared with the rest of the state.

"But once the money gets here, it doesn't make sense to squabble," Moose said.

Transit tax advances - but not for Mecklenburg

The N.C. House of Representatives Transportation Committee Wednesday passed State Rep. Becky Carney's transit-tax bill, which would allow the urban counties of the Triangle and Triad to levy a half-cent sales tax for transit.

Voters in Wake, Durham, Orange, Guilford and Forsyth would have to approve a new sales tax, just as Mecklenburg voters did in 1998 and again in 2007.

All other counties could levy a quarter-cent for transit.

The only county that wouldn't be able to raise taxes for transit: Mecklenburg.

Carney, a Charlotte Democrat, said she originally hoped to give the county the ability to ask voters to spend more on transit, but that was nixed.

One voice of opposition was State Sen. Dan Clodfelter, a fellow Charlotte Democrat. Clodfelter wanted assurance that the Charlotte Area Transit System would make progress towards building a streetcar through central Charlotte and light-rail down Independence Boulevard before backing a bill that could give CATS more money.

Clodfelter is looking out for his east Charlotte constituents. But CATS is so cash-strapped now that it can't guarantee it can build a $400 million streetcar, or even light-rail down Independence, which would probably cost $1 billion.

Charles Hodges of the transportation advocacy group NC Go! said Carney's bill has a chance of passing the full General Assembly. One hurdle may be a reluctance of legislators to open the door for new taxes - even voter-approved taxes - in this crummy economy.

The legislation does have a small change that could impact Mecklenburg. It would broaden the definition of transit funding to include bike paths and pedestrian infastructure that supports public transportation.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Blue plate special

Two years ago, the state issued a license plate recall to get old, faded plates off the road.

When motorists received their new plates they were surprised to see red letters and numbers instead of blue, which has been the traditional color since, well, forever.

The DMV said red would help differentiate the new plates, and it said the red paint would be easier to read after fading.

On Tuesday the DMV reversed course. New plates will once again be in blue.

"We've been listening to folks," said Marge Howell, a DMV spokeswoman. "The decision was made to go back to blue because we think it's easier to read. That may just be a perception. But after listening to people and law enforcement, that was the consensus."

The state still has 1 million red plates left to distribute. The first blue plates won't show up until October, Howell said.

Red-plate owners can get a blue plate if they want. When they renew their registration, they can get a blue plate for free. At any other time, they'll have to pay for a new plate.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

More stimulating road projects

The Technical Coordinating Committee of the Mecklenburg Union Metropolitan Planning Organization voted Thursday on how to spend roughly $20 million in stimulus money. The committee's advisory vote is to spend the windfall on small projects, rather than on finishing Interstate 485.

Here are the projects that would be funded. A final vote by MUMPO would be taken March 18.

* Widening N.C. 73 from U.S. 21 to N.C. 115 in Huntersville, $14 million.
* Improving the intersection of Faith Church Road and Unionville-Indian Trail Road, Indian Trail, $400,000
* Improving the area's traffic signal and traffic management system, Charlotte, $4 million.
* Improving the intersection of N.C. 16 and N.C. 75 in Waxhaw, $550,000
* Improving Matthews-Mint Hill Road, from John Street to Independence Boulevard, Matthews, $550,000.
* Build a roundabout at Concord Road and East Rocky River Road, Davidson, $600,000.

One option was to dedicate the $20 million towards finishing I-485, which will cost about $220 million. Gov. Bev Perdue said last month that construction on the final leg of the outerbelt will begin by the end of 2009.

But there was uncertainty over how I-485 will be funded, and the committee was concerned that if doesn't spend the money by the end of the year, it will be lost.

The local Department of Transportation office will still have about $10 million to spend on area road projects by the end of the year.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

CATS sales tax tumbles in December

The Charlotte Area Transit System said Wednesday night that its half-cent sales tax fell a whopping 15 percent in December 2008 compared with the same month a year earlier. For the entire year, the sales tax was down 8.5 percent.

The dismal December caused CATS to revise again its 10-year projection for the sales tax, which drives the transit system's budget. CATS had thought the tax would only decline by 6 percent in fiscal year 2009, but it now projects a 8 percent drop for the year.

That means CATS believes the sales tax will generate $269 million less over the next decade than originally projected in 2006. Last month, CATS projected the loss would be $252 million.

It's important to remember these are only projections. If the Charlotte economy rebounds, CATS probably won't lose $269 million. And if the local economy regains the swagger of the years 2003-2006, the losses of the last two years could be erased.

The transit system does have some good news, however.

* CATS believes Congress will appropriate $20.5 million for engineering work for the northeast corridor. The entire cost of designing the line will be about $30 million.

* CATS chief executive Keith Parker said the Federal Transit Administration has announced it will change how it evaluates commuter rail lines. That might increase the chance for the north corridor to receive federal money.

* CATS will receive $20.5 million in stimulus money. Parker said he'll probably spend that money upgrading a bus maintenance facility and building park-and-ride lots.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Loop money: Will we get paid back?

A reader e-mailed this morning asking whether there was a downside to Gov. Bev Perdue's promise to start construction on the last piece of I-485 by the end of the year.

His theory: Charlotte is scheduled to get urban loop funds in 2015 for the five-mile highway segment, which will cost about $210 million. If Charlotte spends some of its own highway money now on the outerbelt, will it ever get that money back? Or will the state simply say thanks, pat us on the back, and shuffle the millions somewhere else?

I asked this last year when the idea of using money socked away for the Monroe Connector/Bypass was first floated. The answer among local DOT officials was, yes, we'll get paid back. They seemed aware of the possibility our loop money could vanish in a black hole, and said a deal would be codified with Raleigh.

I think a more likely scenario is that the date for Charlotte to be reimbursed for any Monroe Connector/Bypass money used might be pushed back a year or two as other cities such as Winston-Salem, Fayetteville and Greenville build their outerbelts.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Perdue: 485 construction to start in 2009

Gov. Bev Perdue came to Mint Hill Tuesday to tout a federal stimulus road project that will resurface N.C. 218, at a cost of $17 million. But she made news when she said construction on the last segment of Interstate 485 will begin by the end of the year.

"I want to cut that ribbon on 485," Perdue said.

Perdue and Transportation Secretary Gene Conti said they'll probably use stimulus money to get the project started. Considering the Charlotte area only has $30-$35 million left to spend in stimulus funds, it's not clear where the state will find the rest of the money to finish the loop, which will cost $210 million.

Said Conti, cryptically: "We have a plan."

Conti didn't spell out how Raleigh will pay for the outerbelt.

But the most likely scenario is that money that had been dedicated for the Monroe Bypass/Connector will be switched to the loop.

The local N.C. Department of Transportation office has been socking away money to help build the bypass around Monroe, which is planned as a toll road. Division 10 of the N.C. DOT currently has $180 million in the bank.

When the General Assembly agreed last year to help pay for the Monroe Bypass/Connector and other toll projects, that freed up the $180 million. Now it looks like that money will be directed to the outerbelt.

"I think that's the feather in the cap," said Barry Moose, the DOT division engineer for the Charlotte area.

The last segment of I-485 isn't scheduled to begin construction until 2015.

If construction started in 2009, the state could build much of the five-mile road quickly. That is expected to cost $122 million. The challenge is designed a $100 million spaghetti bowl interchange with I-85 near Concord Mills Mall.

David Joyner, executive director of the N.C. Turnpike Authority, said he supports a plan to speed up construction of I-485. He said the Monroe Connector/Bypass is still on schedule for a 2013 opening, and that the financing from the legislature will free up that money.

Joyner's only concern is that the state doesn't spend all of the $180 million because the Monroe project might need extra money after construction begins.

"The numbers can change all the time," Joyner said.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Taller ticket machines

The ticket-vending machines for the Lynx Blue Line are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, allowing people in wheelchairs to easily buy a ticket. But passengers over six feet tall often had to stoop buy a ticket, straining to find the buttons.

The Charlotte Area Transit System reports Monday that it has installed two taller ticket machines at the Charlotte Transit Center/Arena station. They are for southbound trains, and CATS installed them in time for the CIAA tournament.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Charlotte stimulus, round 1

Here is the official list of the Charlotte stimulus road projects. These contracts will be awarded by June:

Stanly County, new bridge over Long Creek on N.C. 73, $4.7 million
Stanly County, Ridge Street extension, $5.6 million
Mecklenburg County, N.C. 51 widening from Pineville to S.C. state line, $8.3 million
Cabarrus County, I-85 pavement rehab from US 29/601 to NC 73, $3 million
Anson, Union, Mecklenburg counties, N.C. 218 pavement rehab from I-485 to U.S. 74, $17 million

These are the first wave of stimulus projects for Division 10 of the N.C. Department of Transportation, which covers most of the Charlotte area. Division 10 will receive about $35 million in additional stimulus money, which it must spend by the end of 2009.

In the first round of N.C. road stimulus money, Division 2 (Greenville-New Bern) will spend the most money, $64 million. That is all of the division's stimulus money.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

North Corridor out, Yadkin bridge in?

The stimulus package contains a $1.5 billion pot of money for transportation projects nationwide.

The Charlotte Area Transit System was planning to apply for some of that money to build it's North Corridor - a commuter rail line to the Lake Norman area. CATS hoped it might snag $100 million or so, and then finance the rest of the $300 million project itself.

But now it looks like CATS could be muscled out.

Gov. Beverly Perdue's office announced Thursday it's hoping to use the $1.5 billion fund to replace the Interstate 85 bridge over the Yadkin River. The announcement said that Purdue, Transportation Secretary Gene Conti and N.C.'s Congressional delegation are behind the project.

The rules of the $1.5 billion pot say that no state can get more than $300 million.

It's possible the criteria - at this point unknown - might favor transit, which could put the North Corridor back in play.

The Yadkin bridge, built in the mid 1950s, is a narrow, four-lane bridge that everyone wants to replace, but no one wants to pay for it.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Stimulus money - how much we'll get

The N.C. Department of Transportation said Tuesday it will get an infusion of $838 million from the stimulus bill - $735 million for roads and bridges, $103 million for transit.

This isn't exact, but it looks like Division 10 of the DOT - which includes most of the Charlotte area - will get about $70 million for highways. The Charlotte Area Transit System will probably get $22 million.

For CATS, that's a big chunk of money - about as much as the half-cent sales tax generates for capital projects each year. But it's unlikely to spent on building any new rail lines. The money may be spent on renovating a bus maintenance garage or the uptown transit center. CATS may also buy new buses with the cash.

The Charlotte office of the DOT has said it won't attempt to build part of the outerbelt with the money. Instead it will use the money for smaller projects.

Lynx ridership falls

Lynx Blue Line ridership dropped below 14,000 average weekday trips for the first time since last spring, and has dropped 17.6 percent since its peak in July.

That's the bad news.

The good news is that the Lynx still has favorable year-over-year comparisons. The light-rail line averaged 13,963 weekday trips last month, up from 11,930 weekday trips in January 2008. That's a 17 percent increase.

The Charlotte Area Transit System believes it's losing some riders due to the crumbling economy, as well as gas being below $2 a gallon.

The Lynx had a strong summer and fall, with the train consistently carrying more than 16,000 weekday trips. But ridership in November and December averaged 15,500, and then fell significantly in January.