Study shows increased cost, construction of northern commuter rail

CHARLOTTE – The prospect of the Red Line commuter rail from uptown Charlotte to Mooresville seems to be derailing following a study released June 25 by the Charlotte Area Transit System revealing the project would need more construction and millions of additional funds than initially thought.

Area officials, including Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce President Bill Russell, described the project as “not dead,” but on “serious life support.”

The previous assumption of being able to use Norfolk Southern’s existing O-line track going through Charlotte, Huntersville, Cornelius, Davidson and Mooresville has been sidelined after the transportation company said the track being shared by freight and commuter trains is not feasible. An alternative option analyzed in the study is to build another track alongside the O-line, which could have detrimental effects to the budget and the communities it passes through.

“Hearing Norfolk Southern wouldn’t share the line was not new news for us,” said Davidson Mayor John Woods. “It’s a delay, but I’m not saying it’s dead. The message is we are not giving up on it.”

The North Corridor Commuter Rail, LYNX Red Line project, was to provide another transportation option as outlined by the 2030 Transit Corridor System Plan, approved in 2006 by the City of Charlotte and Metropolitan Transit Commission.

“It was another piece in the multimodal transportation plan,” Russell said, adding it won’t alleviate traffic on the interstate but offers another option. “It’s one more piece of the puzzle to bring commuters back and forth from North Mecklenburg to Charlotte.”

The hope was for it to also have an economic impact to the area and be another benefit for the Lake Norman communities.

Norfolk Southern Director of Public Relations Robin Chapman said CATS has been aware of the potential conflicts for years now, stating the company told CATS two years ago there were major flaws in the plan, which is what spurred the study.

“Norfolk Southern is open to the possibility of sharing lines with passenger traffic provided the passenger and freight traffic coexist without interfering and that Norfolk Southern is adequately compensated by the passenger trains and there is sufficient liability in place,” Chapman said.

However, the stipulation of passenger and freight traffic coexisting without interference is the issue in the matter. Chapman said the O-line is only used once a day for freight. The company instead relies on track that it leases from the North Carolina Railroad Company to do its 20-30 daily trips.

Chapman said Norfolk Southern is still under a lease with the state, but discussions have not yet started about what will happen after that time ends, though it is renewable until 2044. The concern is that if the lease is not renewed or they are no longer able to use the N.C. track, the O-line is its strategic reserve to use instead. Chapman said if Norfolk had to use the O-line, it would be impossible for the two entities to coexist because of schedule demands.

“Since there is not a permanent solution,” Chapman said of use of the N.C. owned track, “we are not going to give up the O-Line.”

The CATS study states that a parallel track next to the O-Line has several consequences, including needing a new environmental document to meet the Nation Environmental Policy Act, realignment and reconstruction of adjacent roadways and driveways and substantial increases to design and construction costs. Plus, it would impact right-of-way, delay the project schedule and disrupt adjacent communities from the new alignment.

Depending on which side of the O-line the track is constructed, potential problem areas would be N.C. 115, which could require changes to several miles of the road, and Bailey Road in Cornelius, which has a grading problem and could affect the nearby park. The study favored going on the west side, which would require relocation of parts of N.C. 115 with impacts to intersections and side streets and could potentially affect six places of worship, two cemeteries, one school and 15 residential communities along the entire route. It would also affect downtown Huntersville.

“Main Street may need to be removed completely in some areas if the proposed Red Line tracks were located to the west of the existing and future O-line track alignments,” the study states.

Woods said the alternative would “destroy the towns” and are not feasible in the communities. He said the two transportation entities need to find a win-win instead of a win-lose.

“We should never lose focus on where we want to go and never give up no matter how difficult it might seem,” Woods said. “We need to communicate the desire for transportation alternatives.”

There is no word on what the next plan of action will be.