Red Line leaders wonder: Who’s driving the train?
by Staff Writer
CORNELIUS – Following Norfolk Southern’s declaration last week that the Red Line Regional Railway’s financing plan is “fatally flawed,” members of the Cornelius Rail Task Force expressed concerns Monday, Feb. 27, that the towns are no longer the ones calling the shots.
Even though the department of transportation hired the consultants to draft the current plan, and all communications have filtered through them, NCDOT leaders say they are only providing technical assistance. That leaves many leaders to wonder: who is in charge of the Red Line?
For the proposed 25-mile, $452 million line from Charlotte to Mooresville to work, all nine entities – Charlotte, Davidson, Cornelius, Huntersville, Mooresville, Charlotte Area Transportation Systems, North Carolina Department of Transportation and Iredell and Mecklenburg counties – have to be on board in order for the creation of a joint powers authority to be created, which will handle the financing of the rail line. But Norfolk Southern’s letter stated they didn’t like the joint powers authority concept, which means a completely new plan would have to be drafted.
“I feel like we’re a puppet in this thing,” said Joe Roy, a member of the Cornelius task force. “We haven’t had a full picture of what’s going on. When I was listening to the NCDOT deputy director (Paul Morris) talk last time, it just sounded like there’s more in it for NCDOT than what we know. So when we started hearing Norfolk Southern … twice they came out clearly to iterate the same thing … but that felt like gamesmanship, like there’s something going on. The NCDOT is going to have to step up.”
Former Cornelius mayor Gary Knox agreed.
“I think you’re right, it’s bigger than we are in this room and there’s some sort of shakedown,” Knox said. “We’re going to have to be engaged and have some new conversations. We thought there was a base of understanding (between NCDOT and Norfolk Southern) that didn’t exist, and in the letter Norfolk Southern said there would be no joint powers authority, so we have to start over for sure. But there’s a lot for them to gain and a lot more at stake than the Red Line. I think there’s been shakedown and we just have to be engaged.”
But, despite their concerns, the NCDOT is maintaining it’s merely a passenger on this train, not the driver.
“The DOT is a committed partner of the task force and we are going to continue offering our support and expertise moving forward,” said NCDOT Communications Director Greer Beaty.
And while Norfolk Southern’s concerns regarding liability, cost and feasibility of a mixed-used freight and passenger rail line on the old O-Line will delay the project’s approval, Beaty, and Red Line Task Force Members (created by the Metropolitan Transit Commission) remain optimistic they can rework the plan to meet the freight giant’s needs and meet their critical deadlines.
“We are very willing and able to extend our schedule to create time to complete a new assessment of the engineering, operation, infrastructure of the rail line,” said Davidson Mayor John Woods, a member of the Red Line Task Force. “We simply didn’t know that was necessary until this last communication and are happy to redefine that within Norfolk Southern’s priorities.”
Originally, the task force hoped to have all due diligence work done by the individual agencies by March 30, and the joint powers authority signed and in place by June 30 so they could begin implementing the special assessment district taxes in fiscal year 2012-2013, because the legislation permitting special assessment district expires June 2013.
During the Cornelius Rail Task Force meeting, Wes Southern said, as part of this work, the task force needs to ask the legislature for an extension of the sunset laws.
“It would be irresponsible of this town board, or any other, to try and pack this in June 30 of this year, we don’t need to make the mistake of being pressured into this,” Southern said.
If they get the extension, he said, the task force, NCDOT and Norfolk Southern all need to sit down together and sort things out, he said.
Woods and Beaty both said they were unsure how much the additional work will cost.
But Jennifer Garifo, spokesperson for N.C. DOT said since September 2010 the state has paid to date $275,406 to professional consultants.
When asked if Norfolk Southern refuses to go along with the Red Line project, would that derail the project, Beaty replied, “I’m not going to answer a hypothetical question because there’s no way for me to know.”
Instead, she said, the DOT and its consultants will continue to work with Norfolk Southern to address their concerns.
“What they’re doing is putting together a list of requirements and costs, and we’re going to have to see if we can live with that,” said Mark Briggs with Parsons Brinckerhoff, one of the project consultants retained by the NCDOT.
Want to hear the discussions?
The Lake Norman Transportation Committee will meet March 14 at the Huntersville Town Hall at 6:30 p.m. to discuss the recent developments in the Red Line financial plan.
Cornelius has stipulations for new plan
Members of the Cornelius Rail Task Force laid out requirements during their meeting Monday, Feb. 27, for the revised Red Line Regional Rail financing plan, that stipulate the plan should:
• Be fully vetted with Norfolk Southern in writing.
• Be fully vetted with the state of North Carolina as a potential participant and guarantor of debt, in writing.
• Be the best alternative in providing public transportation to Cornelius and the region, in terms of cost, ridership, need, and best option to meet expected growth.
• Include other public transportation alternatives.
• Include a list of properties to be included in the Unified Benefit District.
• Require a super majority for the creation of the special assessment tax district.
• Include the minimum amount the plan/cost can be covered by user fees.
• Include a comprehensive financial model.
• Address connectivity, specifically to the Gateway Center in Charlotte.
• Include a second financing scenario in case Iredell County votes against the Red Line.
• Include an analysis that tax increment financing won’t hurt the towns’ ability to finance public services since the current plan requires 75 percent of property tax revenues to go toward the Red Line.
• Explain the business and legal structure for the joint powers authority.