Skip to comments.Price tag of transit is soaring
Posted on 07/21/2002 11:48:42 AM PDT by southernnorthcarolina
This story happens to concern Charlotte, but it could be "Anytown, USA," particularly if the "Anytown" in question has delusions of grandeur... aspirations of "greatness" that must be validated by the establishment of rail transit. Never mind that this 18th-century technology is hideously expensive (both with regard to initial cost and ongoing operations); never mind that rail transit never comes close to paying for itself; never mind that rail transit seldom if ever makes an appreciable dent in road construction. If you're going to be a big-league city, you gotta have a train. It's just that simple.
The projected cost of Charlotte-Mecklenburg's rapid-transit system has ballooned to $2.1 billion -- 2 1/2 times the 1998 estimate.
And almost half the new total would pay for buses and other equipment not included in the original plan. Transit officials say the nearly $1 billion in additional spending will dramatically improve the train-and-bus system.
But it makes the system the most expensive transportation project in N.C. history. By contrast, the Charlotte outerbelt, formerly the highest priced, will cost $1.2 billion, as will Raleigh's new rail system.
The initial cost estimate of the Mecklenburg project was $831 million, for five transit corridors plus buses.
But that figure has skyrocketed, according to estimates reported to the Metropolitan Transit Commission.
The new figures come from the Charlotte Area Transit System and were reported in documents filed with the federal government.
The proposal now includes more than $1 billion in new spending, plus $265 million for anticipated inflation.
It's unclear why the original estimate did not account for inflation. The Raleigh office of consultants Parsons Brinckerhoff Quade & Douglas, which drew up the first plan, did not return The Observer's phone calls last week.
Back in 1998, the project's cost was an issue before voters approved the tax. City officials then said prices would rise because of inflation, but it was impossible to accurately predict costs until exact routes were chosen and engineering completed.
Meanwhile, the price tag will continue to climb -- perhaps as early as this week -- as more details are added.
The biggest cost jump comes from buses, garages, technology and equipment that planners have added.
CATS officials say they have greatly expanded the 4-year-old plan, increasing the number of buses and adding bridges, stations and other infrastructure. "That was a much more modest plan," says John Muth, a CATS deputy director. "It has evolved a great deal since then."
Muth said the original plan was never intended to be a final construction blueprint. CATS and the Metropolitan Transit Commission have been adding details, which has added cost, Muth said.
But critics say transit supporters deliberately low-balled costs so voters would approve a half-cent sales tax in 1998 to pay for the work.
"It's bait and switch," said Wendell Cox, an Illinois-based expert and critic of rail systems who has studied the Mecklenburg plan. "Obviously there is inflation, but this is not Argentina. And they always `forget' stuff."
Cox said the city should rescind the tax and put the project -- with its updated cost -- back before voters.
Mayor Pat McCrory denies voters were misled. They approved a half-cent sales tax, not a set budget or specific plan, he says. And he says he believes they understand a project built over many years will cost more because of inflation.
Ron Tober, CATS's chief executive officer, says the initial estimate was low because the plan severely underestimated the role of buses.
Even with the increased costs, Tober says, CATS can afford to build and operate the five transit lines planned for the county. The sales tax will raise $2.7 billion over the next 25 years, he says, and CATS expects millions more in state and federal aid.
Up to now, CATS has spent much of the tax money on its current bus system, while banking $92 million for future rapid-transit needs.
This fall, CATS will take its plans to build a five-corridor system before the transit commission, made up of Mecklenburg's seven mayors and the county commissioners chairman.
Work on the first line -- a light-rail track between uptown and Interstate 485 near Pineville -- will begin next summer. Tober says all five lines will be running by 2020.
Plan has grown
In 1998, the consulting firm of Parsons Brinckerhoff prepared the city's first transit plan. Later that year, voters approved the transit tax.Tober, a nationally recognized leader in building and running rapid-transit systems, arrived the next year. He says he quickly saw the county would need more buses for local and express routes and to get riders to the transit lines.
He wanted 740 buses -- the plan called for 450. CATS now runs 280 buses. "We looked at what other cities have done and the size to the bus operation that's needed to support it," he says.
The extra buses will cost $297 million, with $158 million for bus maintenance and replacement. Two new garages plus land added $75 million.
Tober also wants $134 million for new bus benches, shelters, signs, parking, transit hubs, as well as a share in the cost of an Amtrak/transit center uptown.
New technology, such as cameras and a vehicle-location system, added $13 million.
In the end, CATS came up with an expanded version of the original two-pronged plan: five rapid-transit routes with a combination of trains and busways, plus a network of hundreds of small and large buses.
The original plan estimated a cost of $760 million in 1998 dollars to build and equip those five routes -- a price that did not include new buses. The new estimate of $1.2 billion calculates inflation at 3 percent annually and is based on a staggered construction schedule, 2004 through 2020. Spending on buses, stations, garages and related items will bring that to $2.1 billion.
"In 1998, they were not talking in escalated dollars," Tober said. "Now we are."
Income to rise, too
Inflation not only raises costs, it also increases revenue. Collections from the transit sales tax, which generates more than $50 million annually, are also rising because of Mecklenburg's robust growth. Fares and money from the state and federal governments also will increase over the next 25 years, Tober said.
CATS's long-range financial plan has been accepted by the Federal Transit Administration. The FTA this year gave the south light-rail line a "highly recommended" rating, which all but assures federal money for half its cost. The state will pay 25 percent, the half-cent sales tax covering the rest.
Despite the rising costs, CATS says it may end up with a $367 million surplus -- enough to build a third rail line. Tober says that depends on the state and federal government paying 75 percent of the cost of the other four corridors.
The light-rail line, which will run along South Boulevard, is the only one of five routes planned in detail so far. Its price has increased from $227 million in 1998 to $348 million today because of inflation and unexpected costs such as three overpasses added to the plan, Tober says.
The overpasses were necessary to bypass heavy traffic on cross streets like Tyvola Road, engineers say. The consultants who prepared the 1998 plan were not expected to decide where bridges should be built.
The south corridor price fluctuates as engineering and political decisions are made. It rose about $9 million so trains can pass through the Charlotte Convention Center. And it dropped $21 million since the line apparently will stop before Pineville, eliminating the cost of land, track and a bridge over I-485. The Pineville Town Council opposed the line, fearing congestion in its small downtown.
The final cost of the line won't be known until land for tracks and stations is bought, light-rail trains are ordered, and detailed engineering completed. Trains are to start running in mid-2006.
Skeptics like Mecklenburg county commissioner Bill James are not surprised by the rising prices. "We told you so," he says, adding that elected officials should insist CATS stay within a budget and scale back if needed.
James says he is concerned that CATS will not have enough money to operate, especially if ridership lags. "It is not unexpected that the cost is exorbitantly high, but that will pale in comparison to the cost of running it," he said.
CATS's study for the FTA says it will have enough operating money. It estimates it will spend $11.5 million a year to operate the south line, which it says should carry 7,050 passengers a day when service starts in 2006 and 14,100 daily by 2018. Fares will pay 26 percent of costs. The sales tax and a combination of other government money will cover the rest.
County commissioners Chairman Parks Helms, who is also chairman of the transit commission, says he's comfortable with CATS's financial picture.
"It is expensive, but I think the real issue here is if we don't do it now, if we don't make the commitment now, the cost will simply be overwhelming," he says.
It's not unusual for transit costs to greatly increase over the life of the project, says William Millar, president of the American Public Transit Association. "I know of no project that didn't go up and go up significantly."
A Harvard University study of light-rail projects found that in Buffalo, N.Y., in Los Angeles and in Pittsburgh, the estimates were substantially exceeded. On the other hand, St. Louis, Denver and Dallas built their light-rail lines on budget.
Underestimating is a common problem for highway projects, too. In 1999, an audit showed the N.C. Department of Transportation didn't consider inflation and routine price overruns when it estimated highway costs. As a result, the state had $2 billion in promised roads it couldn't afford.
The cost of transit, Charlotte's alternative to cars and roads, will continue to rise because many drivers prefer trains to buses, Mayor McCrory says.
"Four years ago, we had to sell the idea. Now everyone wants it," he says. "The toughest decision we'll face is not putting (trains) everywhere but where engineering studies show the most riders."
And you ain't seen nothing yet. A substantial portion of the upward revision in the budget is attributed to the bus component of the plan. Just wait until the rail revisions start coming in.
Prediction: the increased projected costs in the commuter lines planned for bus service (busways, exclusive bus lanes, etc.) will be used as justification to convert all lines to rail, thus, of course, increasing the costs even more. The camel's nose is under the tent. We've got a rail line approved, we thought we had it funded (guess not, now); we can't stop at one rail line, can we? Why certainly not. What we need are more and more rail lines. And what we mostly need is for the surrounding counties to share the pain by adding a transit tax.
Charlotte needs a rail system like a boar needs teats. Time to stop the madness!
ALL YOUR RAIL ARE BELONG TO US
I respectfully disagree. Excepting only the silly trolly line which runs all of two miles between the edge of downtown and Dilworth, to allow convention goers to get from the convention Center to bars and restaurants, and which is separate from the commuter scheme, the first mile of commuter rail track has yet to be laid; no passenger trains have been contracted for; very little right-of-way has been purchased; and the United Brotherhood of Railway Workers and Featherbedders hasn't been dealt with yet.
The time to drive a stake though thr heart of this boondoggle is now, before it gets started. You know how incrementalism works. Once we get our first commuter rail line operational, no matter how short, it will be perceived that the only thing it needs to have for economic success is more and longer lines, at, needless to say, escalating prices.
No, thanks. It needs to be stopped now.
This is a succinct description of light rail. It is the local politician's method for growing government and their power. Sad to read that the voters were hoodwinked into voting this funding.
FYI, Raleigh's recently-elected Sociocrat Mayor, Charles Meeker, is a MAJOR cheerleader for the "light rail" initiatives proposed for the Triangle.
If memory serves me, he once worked for one of the firms who would benefit most from the projects associated with its construction.
Meanwhile, he is against allowing the completion of the Outer Loop of the Raleigh Beltline.
This project has been on the drawing boards for many years now.
Maybe some Raleigh area FReepers can elaborate on this.
Well I could, but I was raised better than to use such language in polite company. :)
Hwy. 64 East bump!
Don't know about you two, but I want MORE internal improvements sponsored by the government, whether it be the state or the general government. I LIKE them!! Sure I don't mind paying more and more in taxes to a never ending hole for funds that never get anywhere.
This will never work and the state of NC and the city of Charlotte will be further in the whole than when we began
Meeker is one reason I'm glad Raleigh's an hour away.
You need to contribute to the "TAX ME MORE" fund, you good little socialist! :)
Meanwhile, the road systems suffer.....
Hehhehhe...now that would be the logical solution, but when has government ever been logical?
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