Official: Revived Red Line now ‘priority’ for state
by Staff Writer
The newly appointed deputy secretary for the N.C. Department of Transportation told Cornelius commissioners Monday, Oct. 3, he intends to make the Red Line commuter train a priority again.
“The project has fallen behind,” said Paul Morris. “It has continued to be on the agenda but hasn’t been a priority.”
A self-proclaimed “newbie” who’s had his job for a month, Morris said he has plans to bring the comatose Red Line project back to life, partly by selling it as a dual-use, commuter-commercial freight project.
Last fall, Morris and colleagues at the Department of Transportation answered three essential questions surrounding the Red Line project. They determined the project was financially feasible, could serve multiple purposes and had adequate political support to get the project across the finish line. Given that support, state officials formed the Red Line Task Force in September 2010, drawing officials from the seven cities and towns along the line into planning.
The task force has spent the past year developing and refining all three areas that state officials consider essential for moving ahead, and in August, the task force endorsed a working plan, which now needs final approval from the Metropolitan Transit Commission.
Morris reviewed key parts of the strategy for the Cornelius board Tuesday night:
• Working with consultants, state and local officials concluded that the Red Line and the Blue Line light-rail extension, which will extend to the University City area, can go forward independently – with different funding sources.
The Red Line project won’t just be about getting people from point A to point B, Morris said. The new strategy makes commercial freight an essential part of the project, as well, enabling officials to draw in private business investment.
“It’s more about economic development than anything else,” Morris said. The added commercial freight component envisions construction of “freight villages,” where warehouses and depots are built in clusters around the railroad to increase efficiency, Morris said.
These freight villages would comply with zoning regulations already put in place along the railway, Morris said.
• Under the task force plan, the Red Line would begin operating between 2016 and 2018.
According to Tuesday night’s presentation, the Red Line will run 25 miles along the Norfolk Southern Railway, from the Gateway Station in Charlotte to Mooresville. There is potential for the railway line to extend all the way to Statesville, Morris said.
• The project would cost about $456 million, plus $30 million to $40 million in indirect costs, Morris said. The state and the Charlotte Area Transit System combining to pay half.
The towns along the north corridor would have to come up with the other half, Morris said.
Commissioner David Gilroy asked what state officials will do if the cost of the project begins to escalate.
“The way this project is being structured, there will be a total cap on the budget.” Morris said. “This is not the kind of project that we can keep adding money to it to get to the finish line.”
However, with the high price and high risk comes the chance for high rewards.
“The impact of this is that it could generate 44,000 jobs over the next 30 to 40 years,” Morris said. The Red Line would steer development to the north corridor and to the communities surrounding the corridor, in what Morris calls the Centers and Corridors Strategy.
Commissioner Jim Bensman also questioned the feasibility of running freight and commuter trains over one line of track.
“We have limited conversation with Norfolk (Southern) over the last year, and it has required us to get our ducks in a row,” Morris said. “The ability of the train to do passenger and freight is done with time management. Other corridors have much more complex interfaces than this, and some of them are all on single track, others on triple.
If it’s going to be successful, it has to have multiple interfaces. We are slowly nudging our way to this,” Morris said.
Yet for all Morris’s attempts to lead the board in cheers, commissioners were reluctant to accept the residential and economic development the project would bring with it.
“If you think that we desire high-density residential development, you’re barking up the wrong tree,” Gilroy said.
Morris and state transportation officials, leaders of the Charlotte Area Transit System and officials from all the towns along the north corridor are scheduled to meet again in private Oct. 27 to discuss details of the Red Line plan.