See the three pages of questions here, here and here

By Eren Tataragasi

CORNELIUS – Before members of the Cornelius Rail Task Force can get to work, they have a list of about 50 questions that need to be answered by the Red Line Railway project consultants.

During the first meeting of the task force Wednesday, Jan. 4, members of the task force created the extensive list of questions ranging from how the rail line will actually reduce traffic, how the benefits will outweigh the costs, and how the project will be paid for without actually raising residents’ taxes. The task force hopes to have answered by their next meeting Tuesday, Jan. 10.

The Red Line Regional Rail is an initiative to upgrade an existing 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 Mt. Mourne, with possible future expansion north to Statesville.

Members of the task force compiled their list of questions based on the 68-page presentation the Red Line project consultants put together for a meeting Dec. 13, 2011 in Mooresville outlining financing options for the project.

One of the options presented during that meeting was the somewhat controversial tax increment financing, which would require allocating an increase in future total property tax revenues toward public investment within a designated district – likely high-density, mixed-use developments. The project consultants say this is not a new tax and would not require a tax rate change, and task force members don’t understand how that would actually work.

The Cornelius Rail Task Force was created by the Cornelius Board of Commissioners as a way to explore the tax increment financing, as well as the other financing options, so that by March 31 the board can vote on whether or not to support the Red Line.

“We all want to assure residents that this project is a success and we all need to think about what that means, and want to ask the consultant that as well,” said Cornelius Commissioner Jeff Hare. “It’s not the business world so this project’s success is not defined by profit. In this world, the municipal world, success is along lines of what’s the cost and what’s the benefit, and do they align? That’s something we need to look at as a task force. We need to make sure this project will make sense and benefit the residents of not only Cornelius, but of the region.”

Hare said the task force’s final recommendation won’t be a simple yes or no answer, but will include the conditions the task force thinks makes sense for the town.

“There are a lot of complexities to this, the cost to the town and what we’ll be asking the citizens to take on in terms of potential incremental taxation,” Hare said.

And while the objective of the task force is just to explore the financial feasibility for Cornelius, Hare said the task force’s recommendations needs to make sense for the entire region.

“If it works well for us but would put a strain on our neighbors, we’d have a responsibility in making sure it works for everyone,” Hare said.

But former Cornelius mayor Wes Southern said it didn’t make sense for the town and task force to be putting in so much work if the plan could be scrapped all together by just one municipality pulling out from participation. Iredell County commissioners have pushed up their vote and several have already said they aren’t interested in participating.

“This discussion has been going on for at least 15 years … I don’t mean to be ugly, but there’s no reason to spend a ton of time doing an analysis when we don’t have any idea what the other jurisdictions are doing,” Southern said.

“We can’t control what the other jurisdictions are doing, so we are going to have to come up with our own analysis,” Hare said.

The capital cost for the total project is around $452 million. Project consultants estimate 25 percent (or $113 million) will come from both the Charlotte Area Transportation System and the state through their transit funds. Fifty percent of the cost, $226 million, would be provided by local funds, which could be achieved through the tax increment funding and bonds.

“I’m all for it if it doesn’t cost me a penny,” said former Cornelius Mayor Gary Knox. “And that’s our charge, to figure out the limitations of exposure. Iredell could say ‘fine, but we won’t participate financially.’ I guess our charge is in 90 days to come full circle and figure out what are the financial risks and rewards, and assuming everyone else has a green light.”

The commitment from the state, though, is only a verbal commitment, and any funding from the state would have to be approved by the legislature.

“That’s another thing to be determined,” Hare said. “The Department of Transportation is running this like they want to get all the jurisdictions involved directly, and then they’ll take it to the state. So there’s a risk we could approve, and the state wouldn’t because of financing, but it’s paramount in having us succeed. It’s an important question.”

Another issue task force members brought up Wednesday night was the idea of the Red Line being used by freight.

Developer Jeff Wakeman said it was his understanding freight had been the driving force of the Red Line project, but that no one had spoken with Norfolk Southern.

Knox said it was likely because the project consultants want to have everything else in place before they approach such a major player.

But Jim Bensman who sat in on the meeting said the Red Line was never designed to have freight and said that if the line is going to be used for freight, Norfolk Southern needs to be a player now, helping to develop the infrastructure so it doesn’t have to go back to the planning stages.

“God forbid we approve it, and they (the consultants) go talk to Norfolk Southern and they say it won’t work for freight,” Bensman said.

The next meeting of the Cornelius Rail Task Force is Tuesday, Jan. 10 with the project consultants in town hall, room 204. The task force will also meet Jan. 26 meet with the project’s financing consultant.