Red Line project takes another hit
by Staff Writer
by Eren Tataragasi
Leaders of Norfolk Southern, the rail company considered to be one of the biggest pieces of the Red Line plan, said recently there may be too many issues with the plan for them to support it. Adding on, company officials said even if they did support it, there was no way the line could be completed by 2017.
North Carolina Department of Transportation’s Deputy Secretary of Transit Paul Morris previously told members of various Red Line committees that a huge component of the 25-mile Red Line project, which proposes a passenger rail from Charlotte to Mooresville, was freight, and Norfolk Southern is a big part of that.
But in the Jan. 16 letter, Norfolk Southern’s General Director of Passenger Policy and Strategic Planning John V. Edwards, clearly stated, that’s not the case.
The letter referred to a Jan. 11 meeting between Morris, Edwards and Durwood Laughinghouse, Norfolk Southern’s resident vice president of government relations for North Carolina.
“Right up front … I need to reiterate what I said at that meeting – at this time, Norfolk Southern has not determined that its concerns regarding the proposed Red Line project can be resolved,” Edwards wrote.
According to the letter, the Jan. 11 meeting was the first substantive discussion the two bodies had regarding the Red Line since the original project plan died in 2008. And now that company leaders had a better understanding of the plans for a freight and passenger rail, they were concerned the passenger line may be “fundamentally incompatible” with Norfolk Southern’s future use of the line.
The company’s concerns as bulleted in the letter to Morris, include:
• “Current publicity and discussions indicate that Norfolk Southern has agreed to, endorsed or otherwise has consented to the proposed Red Line project, which is simply not true.
• There has been a significant change in the use of the North Carolina mainline between Charlotte and Raleigh that may require the O Line to be used as an alternative through freight route.
• Norfolk Southern generally no longer provides for exclusive freight or passenger windows.
•Norfolk Southern requires $500 million in liability protection for any passenger operating on its lines.
• Norfolk Southern generally designs, builds, maintains and dispatches its own lines, which may be inconsistent with the Red Line so called “DBOM” (design, build, operate and maintain) proposal.
• The environmental review of the Red Line project has expired and would need to be performed again.
• Previous discussions concerning needed infrastructure, maintenance, signalization and other payments are outdated, particularly in light of the significant infrastructure changes and traffic increases anticipated for the North Carolina rail road and the likely tax treatment of any infrastructure construction and payments to Norfolk Southern arising from the modification to the Red Line project funding sources.
• Any desire to get the proposed Red Line project up and running, if it were deemed acceptable to Norfolk Southern could not be accomplished within the time frame being publicly advocated.
• Norfolk Southern has not previously contracted with a North Carolina joint powers authority, so there may be additional concerns regarding liability, limited life, recourse and other issues that have yet to be identified.”
The letter also said Norfolk Southern is concerned about phase two of the project, extending the line from Mooresville to Statesville. There are issues with the development of the right of way along the O Line in that area, according to the letter.
Edwards said the list of concerns, was not comprehensive, and that Norfolk Southern will likely have more as they continue to go over the Red Line proposal.
Ted Vaden, deputy secretary of internal and external affairs for N.C. DOT, said the department will work with Norfolk Southern to address their issues and concerns, “as the Red Line planning process moves forward.”
“It is worth noting that N.C. DOT works closely with Norfolk Southern in providing passenger and freight service in North Carolina, including state-sponsored Amtrak passenger service that shares track with Norfolk Southern freight service between Raleigh and Charlotte,” Vaden said.
Norfolk Southern is the second entity in the Red Line project to express its concerns with the project – the first was the Iredell County Board of Commissioners, who voted against the current financing plan during a meeting Jan. 18.
“It’s not a zero-sum game every time someone has an opinion,” said Lake Norman Transportation Commission Executive Director Bill Thunberg. “It just means more work. It’s an important aspect of it, and I’m sure the state will address it. … I don’t view it as a setback. The state has made it clear they have to be the ones to negotiate with Norfolk Southern because this is not the only piece of that relationship. It’s more complicated than just the north corridor, but I’m confident the state and Norfolk Southern will sit down and review things in a passionate and rational way.”
Thunberg said this discussion process is necessary to the project and needs to take place regardless of the final outcome.
“The process has to occur,” Thunberg said.
Cornelius Commissioner Jeff Hare agreed, adding the Cornelius Rail Task Force, which has been charged by town commissioners with exploring the costs and benefits of the Red Line to the town, will continue to do it’s due diligence.
“There’s nothing we can do about their positions, so we’ll continue to see what makes sense for Cornelius,” Hare said. “We’re trying to find the facts and still have a lot of questions that haven’t been answered.”
And because the Cornelius Rail Task Force is still waiting on questions to be answered, it has postponed its next meeting, which was originally scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 26.