By DAVID BORAKS
Davidson residents and elected officials at a public hearing on Tuesday quizzed consultants and offered their opinions about the proposed Red Line Regional Rail Project between Mooresville and Charlotte. Some wondered about plans to raise money through special tax districts, and about the business reasons for pitching the project as both a freight and commuter line. Others worried how the system might affect Davidson traffic and affordable housing.
About 50 people including town staff filled the Town Hall board room for the meeting. Speakers came from throughout town, and their questions and comments ranged from deep suspicion to support of the $452 million rail project.
The skeptics put consultants Mark Briggs, of Parsons Brinckerhoff, and Katherine Henderson, of KKH Consulting, on the spot more than once. Vince Winegardner, a Davidson planning board member and former mayoral candidate, asked several questions probing whether the project might add to the town’s debt. (It won’t, the consultants said. Local governments won’t be legally responsible for any debt or operating expenses. The towns’ main role will be to dedicate a portion of future tax revenues to fund the line.)
|RED LINE MEETINGS
WEDNESDAY, JAN. 25, noon, Economic Development Working Group; 3 p.m., MTC Red Line Task Force; 5:30 p.m., Metropolitan Transit Commission.
THURSDAY, JAN. 26, 8:30 a.m., Public Private Partnership workshop; 1:30 p.m., Charlotte Transportation & Planning Committee; 6 p.m., Cornelius Rail Task Force.
FRIDAY, JAN. 27, 8 a.m., Lake Norman Chamber Focus Friday issues session, with Cornelius commissioner Jeff Hare and consultant Mark Briggs. At Lake Norman Chamber, Catawba Ave., Cornelius. See more in our Jan. 19 item, “Chamber supports rail in concept, urges analysis.”
MONDAY, FEB. 6 – 4 p.m.,Huntersville Town Board pre-meeting discussion with consultants, Huntersville Town Hall; 6 p.m., Mooresville Town Board, Mooresville town hall; 7 p.m., Cornelius Town Board meeting, Cornelius Town Hall.
TUESDAY, FEB. 7 – 7:30 a.m., Mooresville Rotary Club looks at the Red Line at its meeting, Ten O’Clock Charlies, Water Tower Center, 455 E. Plaza Drive; 9:30 a.m., Red Line QA, Mooresville Town Hall; 10:30 a.m., Mooresville Review Committee, Mooresville Town Hall; 11:45 a.m., Industry Roundtable lunch with consultants, presented by Lake Norman Regional Economic Development Corp., The Range, 10913 Bailey Rd., Cornelius.
WEDNESDAY, FEB. 8 – 9 a.m., Red Line presentation and public forum, with Randall O’Toole of Cato Institute, who will present an analysis of the Red Line business and finance plan.; 6:30 p.m., Lake Norman Transportation Commission meeting, Mooresville Town Hall.
Details on these as well as additional meetings in February may be found on the RedLineRegionalRail.org calendar page.
Another citizen asked Briggs and Henderson if they or their firms stood to gain financially from the project. (The consultants said their firms are prohibited from being involved in the project if it’s approved.)
The meeting was one of dozens being held from Charlotte to Statesville this winter seeking input on a business plan that calls for upgrading 25 miles of Norfolk Southern-owned railroad tracks north of Charlotte to handle freight and commuter service. The consultants helped research and draft the plan for the N.C. Department of Transportation and the Metropolitan Transit Commission’s Red Line Task Force, which is chaired by Davidson Mayor John Woods. The MTC has sent the plan to local governments along the line for feedback through March. Then in April, project backers hope to send area governments a revised “consensus” plan for approval.
The proposal is by no means a shoo-in, and still faces many hurdles before it can happen. For one thing, it requires approval by all the local governments along the line – Charlotte, Huntersville, Cornelius, Davidson and Mooresville as well as the Mecklenburg and Iredell County commissions. Iredell commissioners, in particular, have signaled that they will need some convincing before they give their approval. (See Jan. 17, 2012, “Iredell board skeptical about rail plan, but puts off ‘no’ vote.” )
Meanwhile, another barrier emerged on Tuesday: New and “fundamental” questions by Norfolk Southern Corp. about the project’s viability. Norfolk Southern owns the tracks north of Charlotte and Red Line proponents acknowledge the project can’t happen if the rail company won’t cooperate. (See Jan. 24, 2012, “Norfolk Southern says Red Line may not be feasible on its track.”)
Among the questions and comments heard Tuesday:
- A resident of Davidson Housing Coalition’s affordable housing units, The Bungalows, on Jetton Street, wondered if those units and other affordable rental housing might be affected by plans to create a Special Assessment District within 1/2 mile of the track. In those districts, property owners would be asked to vote whether to assess a fee to help pay for the train. But Mr. Briggs said property owned by nonprofit organizations would be exempt from any new fee.
- Pat Scruggs asked if the project would seek approval of Special Assessment Districts before the Town Board votes on the project. Actually, Mr. Briggs said, it would happen the other way around – if all the local governments agree to join the project, then they would go about setting up tax and assessment district. “If the 9 jurisdictions don’t adopt the plan, it’s a moot point to go through the process of creating the districts and getting their votes,” he said.
- Ruby Houston of Sloan Street asked Sunday trains and their whistles might disrupt services at Davidson Presbyterian Church, next to the tracks. The consultants and town officials noted that several rail crossings would be closed as part of the project, and new technology should limit noise problems. They also noted that there likely would not be a lot of Sunday morning rail traffic.
- Resident Clay Furches said he strongly supports the rail line, and wondered if the project could proceed even without support of the Iredell County Commission. “What would happen if they said no, and everybody else said yes?” Mr. Briggs replied: “At this point, the project would fail.”
- Town Commissioner Laurie Venzon asked about the rationale forn including freight service in the plan. Mr. Briggs said the state of North Carolina wants to keep the state competitive amid changes in the global transportation system. “Frankly, North Carolina is falling behind a lot of the other states in terms of its ability to move freight. The Panama Canal is being widened and deepened and it’s going to accommodate a lot of larger ships,” he said. Rather than off-loading freight on the West Coast and trucking it east, ships now would have better access to East Coast ports. But North Carolina’s freight rail system is lacking, and could keep the state from taking advantage of the changes.
- Commissioner Rodney Graham asked what improvements in Davidson would be funded as part of the project. The has asked for about $8.5 million for a variety of projects, including three detailed on a handout Tuesday: $1.38 million to build a connection between Potts and Sloan streets on the West Side, to improve north-south traffic flow in town; $690,000 for improvements in the Jackson/Depot street area, near the proposed commuter rail station; and $552,000 for a new parking deck off Jackson Street. (Download a copy of the handout – PDF)
- One citizen said he’s concerned that if the state builds the rail line, it might never funding badly need road improvements in the area, such as widening I-77. Ms. Henderson said the two projects aren’t mutually exclusive, “That project (I-77) is being pursued concurrently with this (Red Line). Both are on the table. One is not contingent on the other,” she said.
- Several questions concerned the state’s discussions with Norfolk Southern about using the rail line. Mr. Briggs and Ms. Henderson said they had been asked to refer those questions to the N.C. DOT’s Paul Morris. (Read more about Norfolk Southern’s concerns in our Tuesday article, “Norfolk Southern says Red Line may not be feasible on its track.”)
- The consultants talked about a possible Phase 2 of the project, which would extend the line north of the planned terminus in Mount Mourne up to I-40 in Statesville. Another questioner asked if that was even possible, since the right-of-way has been lost. Ms. Henderson acknowledged that could be a stumbling block, noting that in one area of Troutman, a McDonald’s has been built over where the rail once ran.
Listen to an audio replay of the public comment and Q&A from Tuesday’s meeting, beginning with comments by Mayor John Woods. Questions are answered by consultants Mark Briggs and Katherine Henderson. Click the play button below. Can’t hear the audio or see the player? Click here.
(MP3, 1 hour, 47 mins,, 50 sec.)
RELATED LINKS AND DOCUMENTS
The Red Line Regional Rail Project website has documents and meeting schedules, as well as a Q&A section where experts answer questions raised in public meetings such as Tuesday’s. See RedLineRegionalRail.org
Tuesday’s meeting began with a 1-hour presentation by the consultants. Download the slides (PDF)
Download a copy of the consultants handout about – PDF)
Download a two-page overview fact sheet on the Red Line project (PDF)
Preview of Lake Norman Chamber’s Friday, Jan. 27, Focus Friday session on the rail line, Jan. 19, “Chamber supports rail in concept, urges analysis.”
Additional coverage in our Red Line rail project archive.”