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.