Wednesday, September 28, 2011

New strategy for transit to North Meck

The Charlotte transit project getting the most attention the past four years has been extending the Lynx Blue Line from uptown to UNC Charlotte. But in recent months plenty of behind-the-curtains work has been focusing on the planned commuter rail line to north Mecklenburg. Tonight, the transit governing body heard about a significant shift in strategy for the Red Line.  The idea is to change the focus from "commuter rail" to "rail."

Charlotte Area Transit System rendering of Red Line car

Quick background: The proposed commuter rail is a different form of transit from light rail. In many ways it's more like intercity passenger rail than the electric-overhead-wire, plenty-of-stops Lynx. The rules for federal money for commuter rail and the cost-benefit analyses the feds require are structured so as to make the proposed 25-mile Red Line from uptown to Mooresville ineligible for federal money. That left a huge gap – 50 percent of the total – in the proposed funding plans, estimated at $373 million total for both phases of the project.

In addition, the countywide half-cent sales tax revenues tanked in 2008 and haven't revived to the earlier estimated levels.  The Charlotte Area Transit System has been stumped over the problem of finding local money for the Red Line to cover the gap left by the lack of federal money, not to mention how to operate the existing bus system and Lynx, plus pay the local share for the $900-million-some Lynx Blue Line Extension.

Back to tonight's meeting of the Metropolitan Transit Commission, which oversees CATS: The Red Line Task Force subcommittee that's been meeting for about a year has agreed on recommending a new approach. Led by Paul Morris – formerly a consultant and starting this month,  the N.C. Department of Transportation's deputy secretary for transit – the group wants to pitch a strategy Morris says will be nationally unique.  Use the rail line as an economic development strategy for both passenger rail and freight rail.  And form a formal partnership among Huntersville, Cornelius and Davidson so they can share tax revenues from new development, via a Joint Powers Authority.

But where would the money come from? Morris said the JPA would have no taxing authority. Whether it could issue bonds might depend on how any financing package is structured.  The Red Line Task Force is, for now, looking at four potential "value capture" ideas (warning, tax-policy-geekdom coming up): tax increment financing, special assessment districts, partnering agreements with private developers, or jointly developing property with a private owner. Which of those ideas, if any, would come to fruition can't be known at the moment.

For most of the past 15 years, the strategic thinking about the north corridor's Red Line was to use it to shape residential development. The area was booming, and the three towns adopted zoning ordinances to encourage transit-oriented development at the proposed station areas. The fact that the rail line's owner, Norfolk Southern, was still running freight trains on it was generally mentioned only in passing.

Now, residential and commercial development are, if not dead, certainly no longer booming. So the strategy being proposed is to use that freight line as a selling tool for industrial development while using the prospect of passenger rail on the same right of way as a selling point for residential and retail development.

Will it fly with the rest of the MTC?  Tonight's discussion might make that more clear. No MTC vote comes until next month.

Here's a link to the PowerPoint presentation Morris gave to the Red Line Task Force in August.


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