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.