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Red Line Commuter Rail Project Is 'Delayed Indefinitely'

The proposed Red Line commuter rail which would stretch 25 miles from Charlotte to Mooresville continues to hit snags and planners now say the project is delayed indefinitely. WFAE's Lisa Miller is with host Marshall Terry to explain the status of the project: TERRY: It was just a few months ago that the state and the Red Line Task Force unveiled this ambitious financing plan and began a series of public meetings to get support for the project. What went wrong? MILLER: It seems as though the backers of the Red Line underestimated what it would take to get Norfolk Southern on board and that's critical because Norfolk Southern owns the train tracks which the commuter rail would run on. Right now, the company uses the track for two freight train trips a day. The state wants to upgrade the tracks and run at least another sixteen commuter trips as well. Early on, state transportation officials talked as if Norfolk Southern had already signed off on the plan, but recent letters from the company make it pretty clear that's not the case. TERRY: What is Norfolk Southern's concern? MILLER: In a letter to the state and the Red Line Task Force back in January, Norfolk Southern said commuter rail would get in the way of their freight business and is "fundamentally incompatible" with the company's ability to expand its business. Then another letter in February called the Red Line project "fatally flawed" for similar reasons. The company says it needs to conduct a study to see if moving freight and commuters works on the same line. That study could take months, even, years and it's expensive. The company says it won't pay for it. The task force is trying to keep an optimistic face. At their last meeting, Davidson Mayor John Woods downplayed the disagreement with Norfolk Southern. WOODS: We've gotten a great communication back from them by email, inviting that study to begin now, effectively the spring. And so we're initiating contact to create those meetings and to begin that level of discussion. TERRY: Well, if the task force is hopeful, has Norfolk Southern given any indication that its objections can be overcome? MILLER: Not publicly. A lot will hinge on what that study finds. Now, the Red Line plan does call for some monetary incentives. Norfolk Southern would get a one-time fee of $28 million for use of the track. Cornelius Mayor Jeff Tarte is part of the task force that's overseeing the project. He compares the negotiations to a game of poker. TARTE: There is some number that makes it viable for Norfolk Southern to participate and we sort-of have to decide what's reasonable in the plan. Kind of like knowing how much money you're willing to bet on Texas Hold 'Em. MILLER: At some point the number would be too big for the state and cities to come up with. But Tarte thinks there's still room for negotiation. TERRY: And what about Norfolk Southern? MILLER: They wouldn't agree to an interview on tape, but the company has said it would meet again with Red Line proponents later this spring or summer. That's a significant setback. The plan was to get all nine municipalities and agencies involved to vote on the Red Line this summer, so the financing of the plan could move forward. The financing plan itself has also been a hard sell because it entails a special tax for many business properties along the line. TERRY: If Norfolk Southern doesn't agree to commuter rail on its train tracks are there other alternatives? MILLER: To build a rail line from scratch would mean acquiring miles of property. Mayor Tarte jokingly suggests putting it down the median of I-77 which the state already owns. Clearly, any alternative to using Norfolk Southern's line would be a lot more expensive and time-consuming. And many commuters between Charlotte and Mooresville are impatient for an alternative to driving on increasingly congested freeways. MT: Thanks for the update, Lisa. LM: Thank you.