Mark Washburn

Lake Norman’s phantom train teases believers

Lynx light rail, running along South Boulevard, won out over the Red Line to Lake Norman for funding.
Lynx light rail, running along South Boulevard, won out over the Red Line to Lake Norman for funding. Observer file photo

Forged in the imagination and powered by pixie dust, the Red Line glides reliably, as it has for two decades, on ribbons of steel from uptown Charlotte to the suburban hamlets of Lake Norman.

Transportation planners have appropriately chosen October, the official host month for specters and apparitions, to launch meetings on the possible resurrection of the commuter rail idea first posed in the twilight years of the 20th century.

As ghost trains go, the Red Line has been a wailing engine of invention, envisioned to stitch the northern towns to center city with fast, efficient transport and serve as the genesis of a development-rich rail hub in uptown.

It floated in the sparkling constellation of maybes when voters approved the transit sales tax, then winked out when the Lynx line devoured the receipts on its routes elsewhere. Though costly, the Lynx light rail is one of Charlotte’s greatest success stories, one certain to pay increasing dividends in transit and development for decades to come.

But for residents of the booming Lake Norman towns (population growth since 1990: 844 percent), losing a commuter train felt like betrayal.

After Charlotte threw its considerable political weight behind the idea, Gov. Pat McCrory signed a contract to solve the region’s commuter crisis by adding much-despised toll lanes along Interstate 77.

In both referendums on the transit sales tax, Lake Norman voters were solid supporters. Now they seem to personify Charlie Brown, who gripes – as other kids peer into their sacks on Halloween night to tally their haul – “I got a rock.”

CATS might dispute that. North Meck puts about $4 million annually into the transit tax pot, which takes in about $85 million county-wide. CATS spends about $3.7 million annually on Lake Norman’s two express bus routes and three small inter-town shuttles.

Express service to uptown is expected to improve when the tollway opens because the buses can use the lanes without wallowing in the sluggish mire of I-77 as they do now.

But what of the sleek, phantom train conjured in the pre-recession heydays? We can talk about that, planners say, and we’ll even hold a series of meetings to do so.

But here’s what Lake Norman residents will learn. Norfolk Southern, which has tracks right through the spine of the northern towns, won’t let commuter rail aboard. It might disturb the occasional freight on the line, it says. Also, that little-used track gives Norfolk Southern a strong bargaining position when it negotiates rates on the parallel main line that runs through Concord toward Greensboro.

Acquiring another route could double the cost of the Red Line, possibly to $1 billion and likely more.

So, yes Lake Norman. You got a rock.

But no one has officially murdered your ghost train, howling distantly in the mist. It was always dead on arrival.