by Eren Tataragasi and Josh Carpenter

STATESVILLE – Iredell County leaders want an entirely new financing plan for the Red Line, but project leaders are convinced they can work with commissioners and reach a consensus.

During a board meeting Tuesday, Jan. 17, commissioners issued a statement saying they couldn’t support the Red Line because they didn’t believe it could be funded without raising taxes. But they would be willing to listen to a new plan – one that wouldn’t cost taxpayers and would require up front commitments from developers who expect to build along the rail line.

Commissioners gave planners 90 days to meet those demands or they would back out of the partnership, effectively killing the 25-mile line from Charlotte to Mooresville.

But project leaders say they still have room to work with.

“What came out of the meeting was that it was evident they did not benefit from a full presentation of the business plan and the specifics involved, clearly reflecting on a fair amount of misinformation and misunderstanding, and as a result made an abrupt decision to not support the draft in its current form,” said Paul Morris, deputy secretary of transit with the N.C. Department of Transportation.

“It was a rather unorthodox way to express their concerns, but in effect that’s what they did. But it’s clear they left the door open. They didn’t say they were not willing to consider any plan. But I would say the initiative has been placed on us to take the lead. We cannot do it without their input so we’ll reach out to them and request an opportunity to sit down with them and walk through the specifics of the entire business plan to see where they have misunderstandings and concerns, and we’re more than happy and ready to do that with them.”

Since the financing plan was laid out in December, municipalities like Davidson, Huntersville, Cornelius and Mooresville have all created dedicated task forces to explore the feasibility of the finance plan, which took more than a year to complete.

Iredell County has not spent any of its own resources to delve into all the details of the plan, and Morris said that was clear in some of their concerns, like which businesses and developments would be included in the unified benefits district, which is the location where property values will go up along the Red Line and tax increment financing (based on property assessments) will be instituted to help pay for the project. He said they also wanted a better understanding of the costs and control mechanisms to make sure the cost of the $452 million project didn’t get out of control.

“They had a variety of legitimate concerns that have been talked about but not nailed down specifically in a way they can understand and support,” Morris said. “Every local government approaches things somewhat differently and we need to find the right words to cover the bases for all of the nine entities.”

In order for the project to work, Cornelius, Davidson, Huntersville, Mooresville, Charlotte, Mecklenburg and Iredell counties, Charlotte Area Transit System, and the state all have to agree to the financing plan.

Morris said Iredell commissioners expressed, in their own way Tuesday, their willingness to stay involved in the project, and that a lot of their frustrations likely stems from the way the project was managed years ago.

“I think they still have some lingering concerns that it’s still being managed by people they historically haven’t trusted, so there’s still a lot of work to do, but they’ve identified issues that concern them and, if resolved, they’d be willing to consider supporting the project,” Morris said.

Bill Thunberg, executive director of the Lake Norman Transportation Commission, said he was pleased commissioners took the approach they did Tuesday night.

“I think they had some very clearly articulated concerns about the plan and I think those concerns need to be addressed and that’s what this process is designed to do between now and the end of March,” Thunberg said. “It’s a good thing they’ve articulated their concerns because that gives everyone an opportunity to understand what those concerns are and try and address them in a way that satisfies them. That’s much better than saying ‘no’ because it gives us a place to go and an opportunity to meet them where they are, because now we know where they are and we can meet them there and have a robust and dispassionate discussion of what the facts are.”

Thunberg said last night was the “first big swing” any of the municipalities had taken at the proposed financing plan.

“The other municipalities are working in that same direction, to identify concerns and are fulfilling their fiduciary responsibility to citizens, as they should be doing,” Thunberg said. “And from the Lake Norman Transportation Commission, we’re here to help them study and investigate the project and see if it’s something that delivers the benefits they’re looking for. We stand ready to assist any of these groups in any way we can.”