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CorneliusNews.net: Officials Say New Regional Authority Should Run Rail Project North Of Charlotte

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Huntersville joint meeting about Red Line project included Paul Morris (right)

NC DOT deputy secretary Paul Morris (right) answered a question at Thursday's meeting. With him were consultant Mark Briggs (left) and Davidson Mayor John Woods, who chairs the Red Line Task Force. (David Boraks/CorneliusNews.net) HUNTERSVILLE - State and local officials on Thursday outlined a new approach to developing a commuter rail line from Charlotte to the Lake Norman area. They're now pitching the 25-mile train line as an economic development initiative that would move freight as well as commuters. And they are proposing to create a new regional transit authority that would work across government lines to plan and raise money for the Red Line project. Under the revised scenario, the Red Line would be planned and built over the next several years, but likely would not begin operating until 2017, according to Paul F. Morris, North Carolina's deputy transportation secretary for transit. He said the main holdup could wind up being how soon officials can eliminate a major regional rail bottleneck: The fact that freight and passenger rail traffic in Charlotte both operate out of a single station in Charlotte. Plans call for building a new "gateway station" in downtown Charlotte that would become the hub of the region's passenger-rail network. "Realistically if we want to have full service from Mooresville to Charlotte's gateway station, the project would be able to start operating about the time the 'great separation' project in downtown Charlotte is completed," Mr. Morris said. That's due to happen by the end of 2017, though it could be sooner, he said. RETHINKING APPROACH TO THE RED LINE Thursday's meeting, at the Central Piedmont Community College North Campus, was designed to update area leaders on the shifting plans for the line. The biggest changes fall into two areas: rethinking the project as a a freight-plus-commuter line, and adopting a more unified approach to governing the project. Until now, planners were focused on commuters, creating a new 10-station passenger line on the existing Norfolk Southern tracks north of Charlotte. But federal funding is all but nonexistent for such projects, and planning in recent months has shifted to viewing the line as an economic development opportunity as well. In addition to serving passengers, officials now are pitching the Red Line as a way to attract new "freight-oriented developments," with tenants whose businesses need rail service. Mr. Morris said planners came to realize that the North Corridor, from Charlotte north to Statesville and I-40, could take on a more important role in the southeastern U.S. transportation network. Paul Morris spoke at Thursday's meeting, with Davidson Mayor John Woods at left. (David Boraks/CorneliusNews.net) "With that new mindset, what it really created was the opportunity to recast this as an economic development-focused agenda that balances the benefits of both freight and people movement, and does so in a way that supports the economic interests at the local level," Mr. Morris said after Thursday's meeting. Governance has been a conundrum. With multiple governments and agencies involved in the project, part of the problem has been figuring out how they might all work together. On Thursday, officials discussed setting up a "Joint Powers Authority," or JPA, to plan and run the line. The new organization would be established by agreement between NC DOT, CATS, Mecklenburg and Iredell counties, and the towns of Mooresville, Davidson, Cornelius and Huntersville. Another question still to be answered is how such a regional authority might pay for the line. The project is currently estimated to cost around $456 million in 2018 dollars, adjusted for inflation, or $357.5 million in current dollars. That would be shared between the N.C. Department of Transportation (25 percent), Charlotte Area Transit System (25 percent) and area governments (50 percent). Where the local government contribution comes from is a big question mark. Officials on Thursday say they favor using a tactic called tax increment financing. The towns would pay for their share using a portion of the increased tax revenues spawned by the line. As property along the line gains value as a result of the line's construction, local governments could pledge a portion of the increased tax revenue to pay off private financing and to run the service. That revenue stream could help attract private investors to buy bonds for the line's construction. NC DOT, CATS, local officials and consultants are still working on a draft financing plan for the line. They expect to unveil that Nov. 30 at a joint meeting of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, and at a public meeting Dec. 13 in Mooresville. RELATED LINKS October 5, 2011: "Commuter rail funding strategy looks at regional benefits" Read more about the Red Line planning on the Charlotte Area Transit System's RideTransit.org website.