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Norfolk Southern Official Calls Red Line Proposal 'Fatally Flawed'

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Norfolk Southern Corp. has taken another big swipe at the proposed Red Line Regional Rail Project, saying in a letter to the N.C. Department of Transportation Tuesday that while the company "stands ready to study" the project, it believes the current plan to bring commuter rail to the Lake Norman area is "fatally flawed" and based on outdated assumptions. John V. Edwards, Norfolk Southern's general director for passenger policy, said the Red Line plan introduced this winter by the N.C. DOT and Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) cannot be a starting point for discussions. Norfolk Southern cannot support the current "Red Line" plan proposed by NCDOT for use of Norfolk Southern's property. The "Red Line" plan is fatally flawed and based upon assumptions about the projected freight use of the 0 Line that are no longer valid. For those reasons, the current proposal is not feasible and does not constitute a starting point for further discussions. Mr. Edwards also said in the letter to state assistant transportation secretary Paul Morris that it is "premature" to be discussing a key aspect of the plan - forming a regional Joint Powers Authority that would manage the construction and operation of the line. Mr. Morris was traveling Tuesday, and could not be reached for comment. DOT spokeswoman Greer Beaty told CorneliusNews.net that Mr. Morris was "reading the letter and working on a written response." Ms. Beaty also said that the Norfolk Southern letter comes at the appropriate time in the process. "This is the time in the process for anyone - private citizens, task force members or stakeholders - to ask questions and bring up any questions or concerns that they may have," she said. "That's really important to a functioning, viable process." The DOT and Red Line supporters have said they are gathering feedback about the plan and hope to revise it. Local governments would be asked to consider a revised plan later this spring. The latest Norfolk Southern letter comes on the eve of another meeting of the Metropolitan Transit Commission's Red Line Task Force, which Mr. Edwards of Norfolk Southern has been attending. [Wednesday's meeting is at 3:30 p.m. at Charlotte Mecklenburg Government Center in Charlotte, and is followed at 5:30 p.m. by a full MTC meeting.] John Woods, Davidson's mayor and chair of the Red Line Task Force, said Norfolk Southern's letter will be a topic of discussion Wednesday. He also said he hopes local officials and NC DOT can schedule a "work session" with Norfolk Southern. "We have designed this process so we can meet and work through the issues. I hope we can convene a specific work session with Norfolk Southern to better understand their vision of commuter and freight rail operations. Norfolk Southern is certainly positive when they say we can work [so that] 'together we get it right,'" Mr. Woods said. "It's a better position than we were in four weeks ago," Cornelius Mayor Jeff Tarte said. "(Norfolk Southern is) saying the financial plan is not acceptable, and it isn't," he said, "but it's better than them saying, 'we're taking our ball and going home.'" The Red Line project calls for upgrading about 25 miles of track from Charlotte to Mount Mourne for increased freight service as well as a new commuter rail service. A plan developed by consultants working for the N.C. DOT last year projected that the line would cost $452 million in 2018 dollars to build. Costs would be shared by the state (25 percent) and CATS (25 percent) as well as by town governments along the line and Mecklenburg and Iredell counties (50 percent). The towns' and counties' share would come by creating special tax districts along the line. Tuesday's letter was the second in two months signaling Norfolk Southern's unhappiness with the DOT plan. In January, Mr. Edwards wrote to Mr. Morris and said it had "fundamental concerns" about the project, including reservations about running commuter and freight traffic on the same track. (See Jan. 24, 2012, "Norfolk Southern says Red Line may not be feasible on its track.") Bill Thunberg, executive director of the Lake Norman Transportation Commission, was among the local officials copied on the letter. He declined to comment Tuesday, saying it would be inappropriate to comment until the N.C. DOT responds. Local officials have been looking for ways to construct a commuter rail line north of Charlotte for more than a decade. Supporters had hoped that the latest plan would finally help get the project off the ground. But Norfolk Southern's opposition to the Red Line plan and concern among local elected officials along the line - including Iredell County Commissioners - have prompted questions about the project's future. The Cornelius Rail Task Force, formed in December to study the project and determine whether Cornelius should support it, will discuss the Feb. 21 letter at its next meeting Monday, Feb. 27. "This letter and the comments from Iredell County are things our task force specifically needs to focus on," Assistant Town Manager Andrew Grant said Tuesday. He serves on the task force, along with Commissioners Jeff Hare and Dave Gilroy, former Cornelius Mayors Wes Southern and Gary Knox, and developers Jeff Wakeman and Joe Roy. Red Line consultants are asking for feedback from all of the towns and already have promised changes in response to concerns. "One recommendation from our task force could be that the DOT and CATS need to spend more time with Norfolk Southern to focus on the issues they mention in the letter," Mr. Grant said. Commissioner Dave Gilroy said the Cornelius Task Force should stop working on the project altogether until those issues are resolved. "The Task Force should take a break, a long break," Commissioner Gilroy said. "I'm asking our Board to follow the Mecklenburg County Commission's example from weeks ago, and to instruct our town management and staff to cease further work on this subject until these fundamental issues are clarified between the state and the owner of the line." Consultants already are working to revise other parts of the plan based on community feedback, including fees in Special Assessment Districts. One aspect of the financing plan asks commercial property owners along the rail line to voluntarily create Special Assessment Districts, and to submit to annual fees to help pay for the project. On Feb. 8, consultants told property owners and merchants at a Davidson Town Hall meeting that they would reduce the special assessments to take into account the potential impact on small small businesses. (See Feb. 9, 2012, "Red Line to revise special assessments to help small biz.") TEXT OF THE NORFOLK SOUTHERN LETTER February 21, 2012 Via email only Paul F. Morris Deputy Secretary for Transit North Carolina Department of Transportation 1501 Mail Service Center Transportation Building Raleigh, NC 27699-1501 Re: Proposed Red Line Commuter Project Dear Paul We have followed with interest and concern the recent campaign to introduce "Red Line" commuter service on the Norfolk Southern-owned rail line between Charlotte and Mooresville. Norfolk Southern stands ready to study with NCDOT and CATS the introduction of commuter rail service on the Norfolk Southern 0 Line. Although I cannot now anticipate the eventual conclusions of such a study, Norfolk Southern commits to ensuring that any new study is based upon realistic operating, financial and regulatory assumptions. Having said that, Norfolk Southern cannot support the current "Red Line" plan proposed by NCDOT for use of Norfolk Southern's property. The "Red Line" plan is fatally flawed and based upon assumptions about the projected freight use of the 0 Line that are no longer valid. For those reasons, the current proposal is not feasible and does not constitute a starting point for further discussions. The JPA development process, therefore, is premature and will not lead to an accelerated construction schedule. If NCDOT wishes to pursue some form of commuter rail on Norfolk Southern's "0 Line, Norfolk Southern will be ready to begin the study based upon updated freight operating assumptions, and the correct financial, tax, liability and regulatory models. This process is not short or easy. It will be an expensive process for NCDOT. But we will work with you to ensure that together we get it right. John V. Edwards General Director Passenger Policy 757-629-2838 757-533-4884 Fax John.Edwards@nscorp.com John V. Edwards See an electronic copy of the actual letter (PDF), CLICK HERE- JOHN WOODS COMMENT Here's a statement from Red Line Task Force chair John Woods about Norfolk Southern's letter. We welcome their comments and look forward to working with them. As I have said before, NOW is the time to ask the tough questions, dig into the numbers and understand everybody's needs and vision for this regional rail project. One thing is clear: we all want to make the right decisions our community. We have a process underway with multiple communities and parties-public and private - working together. We seek an infrastructure improvement that will benefit future generations - our work today is really for our children and grandchildren. We have designed this process so we can meet and work through the issues. I hope we can convene a specific work session with Norfolk Southern to better understand their vision of commuter and freight rail operations. Norfolk Southern is certainly positive when they say we can work "together we get it right". Conveniently, the Red Line Task Force meets tomorrow afternoon at 3:30PM in Charlotte (City - County Government Center, room 266) and we will continue these discussions. We hope Norfolk Southern officials will continue to attend the meetings.