Red Line leaders answer critics
by Staff Writer
CORNELIUS – Project consultants on the Red Line Regional Rail project addressed concerns regarding development, traffic congestion and funding of the $452 million project during the second meeting of the Cornelius Rail Task Force Tuesday, Jan. 10.
Task force members stressed their concerns that the Red Line would be pushing too much development into too little space, further adding to existing congestion problems in the Interstate-77 corridor.
But consultant Mark Briggs said, “local control all the way through the process – that’s the emphasis,” stressing that only development approved by the towns and their individual land use plans is what would come to fruition.
The Red Line Regional Rail is an initiative to upgrade a 25-mile section of the Norfolk Southern Railroad “O” line in the north corridor of the Charlotte metropolitan area, and would include 10 stops from Charlotte to Mooresville, with possible future expansion north to Statesville.
While the tax revenues from developments along the Red Line corridor are what will help cover the costs of the rail project through tax increment financing and special assessment district taxes — which are taxes that will be imposed on mixed-use and commercial developments along the Red Line — Briggs stressed that how much development a town sees is entirely up to them.
And while task force members are concerned the Red Line and the development necessary to fund it will just create more congestion, they also expressed concerns that the additional costs imposed upon developers could hinder those projects necessary to fund the rail line.
But Briggs and Deputy Secretary of the N.C. Department of Transportation Paul Morris said this project would be a win for them as well.
“People are attracted to being where they’re close to rail, and they can get a premium on their rents, and what we’ve found is those developers will get double the income of what their actual increased cost is going to be,” Briggs said. “That’s the sort of economics developers are looking at. And for small businesses, in every case, they don’t even have to increase their revenues by one percent to pay what their additional costs are based on the special assessment district tax.”
The proposed tax rate for the tax increment financing would be .75 cents per $100 value of assessed property value. The special assessment district tax would be based on the business’ location and other variables.
“In the 26 years I’ve been doing this across the country and the globe, anytime there’s an investment in rail, the day that commitment was made, development was triggered and things started to happen. It didn’t all build all right away, but the value increased as did the development interest,” Morris said.
And sort of taking the “if you build it, they will come” approach, he said the same concept of development following a rail line applies to business growth through the use of freight along the Red Line, which has peaked the state’s interest in the project.
“We’re vulnerable right now to South Carolina, Georgia and Virginia for where the major freight movement will go in the next 10 years,” Morris said.
One of the major players in the freight business is Norfolk Southern, which has invested a lot of money into the area with its intermodal center at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, and in Raleigh, and Morris said he’s been working with them on the sidelines while the Red Line project was being updated. Now that the development plan is complete and up to date, the company is now looking to become more involved.
And while members of the task force seemed somewhat comforted by the idea that Norfolk Southern might be supportive of the Red Line project, they were still concerned that unless the state also is willing to follow through, and quickly, on its plans to expand I-77, the development necessary to pay for the Red Line would create nothing but more problems.
But project consultants were adamant that the creation of the Red Line would reduce traffic on I-77 and said it would eliminate one lane of traffic on the interstate during peak hours.
“I’ve lived here for 10 year and commuted to downtown Charlotte and I never would’ve taken the train,” said Cornelius Commissioner Jeff Hare, who sits on the task force. “I highly doubt those numbers of commuters will be there along those rail lines in the next few years. It’s important that by the decision making timeline, there be information in terms of when I-77 will be widened, because it’s not responsible to our citizens if we don’t have it being done coincidentally at best. In order to make a decision on the rail line, there needs to be a specific timeline of when I-77 will be expanded.”
Morris said work on widening I-77 will be done simultaneously to “improve and expand mobility … they’re dependent on each other, not competing.”
Morris said as the state works on a plan for the future of I-77 the state is considering a public private partnership that would include high occupancy toll lanes.
“The funding hasn’t been worked out, but if we use other states’ examples its funded in part by toll lanes and toll revenues,” Morris said. “Those that aren’t high occupancy vehicles pay a toll to use it. There has to be sufficient demand to warrant it.”
But Morris said the volume of traffic presently on I-77 is a pretty demonstrative of a significant demand.
By mid-year, he hopes the state will be ready to put the I-77 project proposal “on the marketplace.”
The next meeting of the Cornelius Rail Task Force is at 6 p.m., Thursday, Jan. 19, at town hall, room 204.