By DAVID BORAKS
CORNELIUS – The North Mecklenburg-South Iredell Transportation Task Force turned its attention to rail Wednesday, discussing whether the North Corridor Commuter Rail Line might be planned and built easier and sooner if the towns banded together and lobbied. There were signs at the meeting that some rail skeptics might be willing to go along if annual costs are in line with projections shown Wednesday, and if the towns explore alternative ways of paying for it. And there was word that Mooresville is again tentatively exploring how it might participate.
The meeting at Cornelius Town Hall was the sixth in a planned three-month series of meetings by the task force, which was formed in December by the mayors of Davidson, Mooresville, Cornelius and Huntersville. The group, including former Davidson Mayor Randy Kincaid as chair and former Cornelius Mayor Gary Knox as vice-chair, is charged with taking an all-encompassing look at regional transportation issues and making recommendations to the mayors.
WE HAVE THE TRACK
David Carol, the North Corridor project manager for Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS), outlined plans for the $261 million, 25-mile line from Mooresville to Charlotte. The plan calls for using a combination of state, county and local funding to upgrade the tracks, buy equipment and make other improvements needed to offer service.
Mr. Carol told public officials and business leaders the region has a moment of opportunity to build the line cheaply right now because it can use the existing Norfolk Southern track, or right of way.
“What is unique about the north corridor is that there is perhaps the most under-utilized transportation resource in the entire region,” he said, referring to the existing track.
“Our right-of-way exists and it is as simple as upgrading the tracks and protecting the crossings. That is all were dealing with. And its the reason why, all things relative, this is a fairly inexpensive corridor as far as mass transit goes, certainly as far as road building goes,” Mr. Carol said.
Building a new road or rail line linking the four towns with downtown Charlotte would be a monumental and virtually impossible task. We have that very resource here that is entirely unused, he said.
Other lines, such as the Northeast light rail line from Charlotte to the UNC-Charlotte area, would be built from scratch, requiring far more work on engineering, land acquisition and other planning. That means theyd cost more and take longer to build, Mr. Carol said.
“The Northeast line, also proposed by CATS, is an amazing visionary transportation system, but there literally is no right-of-way. It is going through parking lots, and between shopping malls and pushing over garbage dumpsters and building bridges where there aren’t any,” he said.
Mr. Carol said the North Corridor project is in a “queue” for funding alongside with the Northeast line and ahead of other proposed Charlotte-area projects. “If we’re knocked out of that queue, were probably 10 to 15 years out before we have another opportunity to build the line,” Mr. Carol said.
Some local officials worry that CATS or Charlotte officials might try to push ahead other projects at the expense of the North Corridor line. Some of Wednesday’s discussion focused on how the towns might make their case for sticking to the current timetable.
Mr. Knox, the task-force co-chair, worried that the North Corridor project was at a disadvantage. “We’re backsliding now,” he said, in part because the towns have not made their own case for the line. Nonetheless, he thinks if the towns act now, the time line Mr. Carol presented Wednesday is realistic.
CATS officials said in January that they planned to ask the Charlotte City Council for $8.5 million to start engineering for the North Corridor Commuter Rail Line. That request is expected to come up for discussion at a Charlotte City Council meeting next Monday. It would come up for a vote on Feb. 25, when the council also would vote on a separate $30 million request for engineering funding for the Northeast light rail line.
(Davidson’s Town Board is expected to approve a resolution in support of the $8.5 million engineering contract at its meeting Monday, Feb. 12. It’s on the consent agenda, which means no discussion is planned.)
An environmental assessment is to be completed by this summer, and final engineering would be completed in 2009.
Current plans call for construction to be completed by late 2011 or early 2012. But Mr. Carol acknowledged that a more realistic time line based on the uncertainty of funding would be for completion in late 2012 to 2014.
EQUAL TO A HIGHWAY LANE
Some critics of the rail project, who favor more spending on roads, have questioned the need for rail. But Mr. Carol said the towns shouldn’t view it as an either/or dilemma.
He urged task force members to view the rail line as one piece of the local transportation picture. “It’s a rush-hour congestion relief program,” he said.
Mr. Carol praised the task force for keeping a broad focus. “The issue is really how do we address transportation issues in the area and I think what you’re doing and the way you’re going about it is absolutely the right way,” he said.
In recent weeks, the task force has looked at the high cost and lack of funding for widening I-77, one of the region’s biggest transportation issues. A rail line in operation in a few years could actually help, since the time line for an I-77 widening project is well in the future.
Heads nodded around the meeting room when Mr. Carol noted that by keeping some commuters off the highway, the rail line would be the equivalent of adding a lane to I-77 at rush hour.
He said trains would operate in both directions all day, contrary to some rumors about the service. Trains would run every 30 minutes at peak in the commuting direction (toward Charlotte in the morning and toward Mooresville in the afternoon). Off-peak trains would run hourly. Altogether, plans call for 22 to 40 trains per day.
Also, the locomotives to be used can handle additional cars as ridership increases.
HOW TO PAY FOR IT
The big question facing CATS and the towns is how to pay for the line. It does not qualify for a federal grant because of the government’s strict formulas for calculating potential ridership. So local officials are studying ways to pay for the line without federal money. Mr. Carol said there’s a $70 million funding shortfall between the money available to pay for the line and its cost.
The towns are studying how they can make up that shortfall. The most frequently discussed alternative is called tax increment financing, or TIF, in which towns would set aside a portion of future tax revenues generated by growth in rail station areas to help pay for the train line. In November, Davidson’s Town Board approved a modified version of the TIF concept for downtown.
Mr. Carol showed a slide Wednesday outlining various funding scenarios. The towns could push for an increase in CATS share, ask developers for contributions, or ask the state to increase its 25 percent share of the cost. He said the towns could use TIF, in special tax districts around stations, to pay their share. They also could increase vehicle taxes and though difficult to win lobby for federal budget earmarks.
Mr. Kincaid endorsed the idea of using an annual $20 town automobile tax, which across the four towns could cover a significant share of the annual debt payments.
Another of Mr. Carol’s slides showed that with federal and CATS money and using tax increment financing, the towns could face relatively low potential annual costs for borrowing.
The project is eligible for a federal rail improvement loan, which comes with a low interest rate. That would provide upfront money for construction. The towns then cold pay off the loan through TIF. Total costs, under the scenario presented by Mr. Carol, based on the number of stations in each town, would be:
- $5.9 million for Huntersville
- $2.2 million for Cornelius
- $2.7 million for Davidson
- $15 million for Mooresville (higher because Iredell County is not participating.)
Annual payments for interest only during construction would be low: $347 million in Huntersville, $128,000 in Cornelius, $154,000 in Davidson and $825,000 in Mooresville. Costs would rise slightly once construction was completed.
Mr. Kincaid, the task force chair, added up the initial yearly cost for the four towns and noted, “1.4 million dollars for two years sounds like a do-able number to me.”
Huntersville Commissioner Charles Jeter, who has been skeptical of the rail project, jokingly asked Mr. Kincaid if he was offering for Davidson to pick up the tab.
“If that’s what it takes to get this train built,” Mr. Kincaid replied.
A short time later, after quizzing Mr. Carol about the finances and plans for service, Mr. Jeter hinted that he might be willing to endorse the project, if the numbers Mr. Carol presented were realistic.
“Those numbers are do-able, if those are the numbers,” he said.
Several task force members or local commissioners suggested that the towns also might shrink their borrowing costs by getting developers to contribute to the cost of stations or station-area improvements. In some cases, they noted, stations could be built inside commercial projects already planned in the station areas, such as the Bryton project in Huntersville or Antiquity in Cornelius.
There’s still a question of whether the City of Charlotte will move forward with the North Corridor project. But Mr. Carol said he thinks Charlotte will agree if the towns are unified in their support, and demonstrate their commitment by showing how they would help fund the project.
“My sense is that if the north towns are there, then Charlotte is there,” he said.
CATS and other regional officials planning the line are hoping that Mooresville joins the project. Last April, Iredell County commissioners voted against participating, but Mooresville officials have taken up the issue again recently, according to Mr. Carol.
“Mooresville has been looking at using TIF to extend the service from Davidson to Mt. Mourne and we’re very excited by that,” Mr. Carol said. “I’m sure Davidson is excited by that and hope Mooresville’s excited by that.”
Also, Mr. Carol said CATS officials met with leaders of Fairview Church in Mt. Mourne last week, “and they remain very very interested in building a joint facility at Mt. Mourne. It is the right place for a first stop before getting to downtown Mooresville at some point.”
The task force meets again next Wednesday, Feb. 13, at 5 p.m. at Cornelius Town Hall for a continuation of the discussion about the commuter rail line.
Meetings are Wednesdays, 5-7 p.m., at Cornelius Town Hall, through the end of March. For the tentative schedule, CLICK HERE>
The Town of Davidson website has a page for the task force.