Lake Norman & Mooresville

Red Line plans get major changes

The Red Line can be a worthwhile investment if it carries both freight and commuters, and if each jurisdiction along the route works together and with the state, officials told residents in late October.

Adding freight to the deal, officials agreed, would help encourage development along the route.After months of discussion, the Red Line Task force delivered its recommendations on the future of the proposed 25-mile commuter rail line.

The commuter train would run from Charlotte to Mooresville, with a potential future extension to Statesville. It would run on a section of track operated by the Norfolk Southern Railroad, which would still run on the line as well.

"If this venture proves to be successful, it could promote a lot of economic development between Mooresville and Statesville and help bridge the differences between the north and south ends of (Iredell) county," said Mooresville town Commissioner Mac Herring.

By the most recent estimates, the initial phase of the Red Line will cost about $452 million to develop and create about 23,000 jobs.

Several local officials said they support adding the freight line. Many said it was an obvious addition.

"That element was there the whole time. We just never recognized it," said former Mooresville mayor Bill Thunberg, the town's representative on the Metropolitan Transit Commission. "It allows us to capture the benefit of the economic development that that rail line would spawn."

Different trains would carry freight and commuters, although they would operate on the same upgraded rail line.

Many officials also said they want to create a unified planning strategy for the line, involving Mooresville, Charlotte, the three North Mecklenburg towns, Mecklenburg and Iredell counties, the N.C. Department of Transportation and the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS).

That approach is common for regional transit, said Thunberg.

But a couple of years ago, the planning was more fragmented, as planners discussed nine proposed train stations along the railway.

"I think it was a natural outgrowth of the way people were thinking, in terms of how funding had to be obtained," Thunberg said. Each jurisdiction's responsibility for developing stations in its area, he said, began to outweigh what would be best for the whole line.

Many officials now say they're optimistic that the unified effort will allow the Red Line to begin operating sooner.

"The biggest item is for all to have an open mind, work the process, test the viability of the Red Line and make informed, important decisions for the future. ..." said Mooresville Commissioner Mitch Abraham.

But several questions and concerns remain surrounding development of the Red Line, particularly about how to pay for it.

According to the task force's recommendations, the state and CATS would each pay for 25 percent of the project, and the seven North Corridor jurisdictions together would pay 50 percent.

The task force is recommending that the seven jurisdictions raise the money to develop the line through value capture funding, a common form of financing where bonds or a public-private partnership are used to pay for the project upfront.

Then, the unique revenue that's created from the new development helps to pay back that investment.

This strategy can take many forms, including a special assessment district and tax increment financing.

With a special assessment district, property owners in a defined area near the development agree to pay a portion of their property assessment to help fund the rail. The district can only be created from a petition from the majority of affected property owners.

In tax increment financing, the difference between projected property values before and after a development overtime is calculated. A portion of that revenue goes to fund the development. The rest of goes to the individual jurisdictions.

Some town officials said they're not comfortable with committing taxpayer dollars to pay for the project.

"A few elected individuals' committing the taxpayers to ... financing ... over $5 million is not responsible fiscal policy," said town Commissioner at Large Rhett Dusenbury. "Any amount this size ... should be brought to the voters for approval...."

Mooresville will face significant debt from its co-ownership of MI-Connection with the town of Davidson.

MI-Connection board members have estimated that the company will need about $17 million from the two towns in fiscal 2011 through 2013.

A preliminary business and financing plan for the Red Line project will be released during a public meeting Nov. 30 at the Government Center in Charlotte.

From there, the nine affected jurisdictions will look over the plans and decide whether to participate.

"The only way this can go forward is if all nine of the entities do it together," said Thunberg.

If all the entities involved approve the plan within the first six months of 2012, the Red Line could be running as early as 2016, according to the task force.