CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The light-rail extension to UNC Charlotte is on schedule to open in 2017, but two uncertainties hang over the project - the local economy and budget-cutting in Washington, D.C.

The Charlotte Area Transit System said in a Monday night presentation to the City Council that it hopes the federal government will sign off on the project late next year - a milestone that would allow construction to begin in fall 2013.

CATS said it believes the project will meet the Federal Transit Administration's threshold for cost-effectiveness, and the transit system is upbeat as to how the train extension is progressing.

The biggest hurdle, however, is that the local economy must improve.

Revenue from the half-cent sales tax - which is CATS' primary source of money - has tumbled to levels of seven years ago. CATS has remodeled its long-term financial forecasts to show the tax growing at modest rates.

But the tax must meet those targets for the transit system to have enough money to pay for construction debt and for the estimated $11.5 million in operating costs.

You have to have some growth, said CATS chief executive Carolyn Flowers.

In January, CATS announced it was eliminating two stations at the end of the line to save money. The new plan has the line ending at UNCC rather than at Interstate 485.

That decision cut $203 million and brought the estimated cost to $967 million. But CATS said Monday the price has increased by $93 million, to $1.07 billion. The main reason is that the federal government told CATS it should include additional finance charges in its construction costs because the transit system might not receive federal money as quickly as in the past.

CATS needs the FTA to pay for half of the construction - $535 million. The N.C. Department of Transportation would pay for 25 percent - $267 million - with CATS paying for the rest.

The transit system said the price could increase because of factors outside its control, such as inflation and the availability of labor.

In 2007, CATS predicted the longer Blue Line Extension would cost roughly $750 million.

CATS said the extension will come with a number of important milestones in the next two years. In December, CATS said it expects to sign a contract with the state for its share of the money. It will also begin buying land.

In February 2012, CATS hopes to ask the federal government for permission to enter a stage known as Final Design. In late 2012, the transit system hopes to have a commitment from the Feds for half the construction costs.

That would allow work to begin in September 2013.

Other council actions

In other action Monday, council members approved giving a larger Business Investment Grant to Ballantyne-based SPX.

In January, the council voted to award SPX a five-year grant of $1.7 million, based on the company's decision to build a 230,000-square-foot office building in Ballantyne rather than in Lancaster County, S.C. The grant payments are based on the value of the company's investment as appraised by the Mecklenburg County tax office.

The additional money was due to changes in how the company's aircraft fleet is valued. Because the value of aircraft fluctuates, the city and county agreed to set the value of the planes at $68 million. That resulted in a larger grant, from $1.7 million to $2 million.

Council members also voted to award Time Warner Cable a Business Investment Grant of $696,000 as part of a July decision by the company to provide 225 new jobs by 2012 with an average wage of $91,000.

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