The North Corridor commuter train is still on track, but the proposed railway from downtown Charlotte to Mount Mourne will face its biggest challenge next spring.
The Metropolitan Transit Commission, composed of city leaders throughout Mecklenburg County, will have determined the cost to build the line by then. Initial estimates have been $261 million or more.
That's also when the MTC will determine whether to go ahead with the project, a heavier-gauge train than the light-rail modules of the southern Lynx Blue line.
MTC officials also are considering a third line, a northeast extension of the light-rail line to the UNCC area. Although more complicated and expensive – an estimated $450 million – ridership projections are highand the light-rail project could get federal funds. The North rail line likely would not qualify, officials have said.
“The question is, do we do the commuter rail, the northeast extension, neither or both?” Charlotte Area Transit System director Keith Parker said. “We have to look at all the options, and see what makes sense.”
The North Corridor commuter train would travel a 25-mile route, with 10 stations along the way.
Stops would include downtown Huntersville, Sam Furr Road, downtown Cornelius and Davidson, and Mount Mourne in Iredell. CATS officials said 22 trains would run weekdays from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., with an estimated 4,600 riders daily by 2030.
If it is approved, it could be ready by the end of 2012.
CATS estimated that Interstate 77 has 87,000 drivers per day from Mooresville to Charlotte. That number is expected to be 170,000 by 2030. The state has not announced any plans to widen I-77, and the only current alternate routes are U.S. 21 and N.C. 115.
“We would be much more better off with this,” said Bill Coxe, a transportation planner for Huntersville, said of the rail line. “The value of it is almost incalcuable in the long term.”
But the train still faces challenges, primarily who should pay for it.
CATS officials said they would expect the state to pick up 25 percent of the cost, at least $65 million based on the initial estimate. The towns of Huntersville, Cornelius and Davidson would have to chip in a combined $70 million, and Mooresville would have to pay about $15 million of the cost, based on the initial estimate.
Mayors from Huntersville, Cornelius and Davidson have all stated support for the project, and all three are on the MTC.
But some commissioners from Huntersville and Cornelius have objected to the proposed train because of its cost. Huntersville town board member Charles Jeter has said that CATS should pick up a higher percentage of the cost, and added that roads should be his town's top priority.
Huntersville town board member Ron Julian said he supports the commuter train, but isn't sure what is the best way to fund it.
“I am a proponent of the North Corridor rail and mass transit, but whether we get it depends on how much it costs,” Julian said. “Huntersville, Davidson and Cornelius' portion will have to be very small.”
Officials from the towns have said they would use tax-increment financing – which generates revenue based on expected development around the stations – to help pay for the commuter rail.
Julian said he would prefer a “synthetic” financing, where a developer would guarantee a tax base so the town wouldn't have to come up with funds if projections weren't met. He said he also hoped Mecklenburg County could cut the towns' bills in half.
CATS officials pointed to the success of the current Lynx Blue line between uptown and I-485 in south Charlotte, which has ridership 77 percent higher than its projections. Coxe said the commuter rail, which will run every 30 minutes during peak times, and hourly during off-peak hours, can make an impact as well.
“The biggest thing is the development that will come with this – that will help make it successful,” he said. “…You need to throw everything you can into transportation, because it is never going to get better.”