Will light rail be expanded to UNC Charlotte? We'll know soon

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - After years of planning to extend Charlotte's light rail system to UNC Charlotte, everything could come down to a decision the federal government is expected to make within about four months.

The extension, which would go from where the light rail currently ends in uptown to UNC Charlotte's campus, is estimated to cost over $1 billion and would be paid for by local, state, and federal money.

Charlotte Area Transit head Carolyn Flowers says everything pretty much hinges on what the federal government does.

The hope is that the federal tax money will account for about $535 million of the project's budget -- which is 50% of it.

Flowers says we should know if the federal government is willing to pay that amount by December.  She expects the answer to come in January at the latest.

One issues CATS is concerned about -- the current environment in Washington, which is far different than it was when CATS started planning for the extension.

These days the talk in Washington is all about spending cuts rather than new spending.

"There's risk," Republican Charlotte city council member Edwin Peacock said at a meeting Monday night.  "There's more risk than there was before.  The federal environment is much tougher right now.  It's much more hostile."

But Flowers says even if only a small number of projects get funding from the feds, she believes the light rail extension is in a good position to be one of them.

If the feds agree to provide the money, the current plan calls for the extension to be open by 2017.  That's later than originally hoped -- but if the federal government says no in a few months, it's possible the extension would either never happen, or not open until far later than even 2017.

The light rail extension would go from uptown through NoDa, and then eventually go along North Tryon up to the university, where it would veer off onto the campus.

The final budget for the project has not been set, but it's currently estimated at $1.069 billion, which is about $100 million higher than an estimate that come out this past January.

CATS says the cost of materials and labor hasn't gone up, but it is adding in some property and debt financing to the cost, and that's why it has gone up.

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