Friday, December 2, 2011

Charlotte transit plan makeover goes beyond cosmetic surgery

The stalled-for-years proposal to build a commuter rail line from downtown Charlotte north to the booming suburban towns of Huntersville, Cornelius, Davidson and Mooresville is getting a significant makeover, not just cosmetic surgery. The state and local officials involved are looking to find funding with freight-oriented development, a sort of cousin to the more widely recognized transit-oriented development (a.k.a. TOD).

The project has been stalled because it hasn't qualified for federal funding, which typically pays half the cost of a transit line. After years of patiently sitting by, towns in northern Mecklenburg County and Mooresville in Iredell County formed the Lake Norman Transportation Commission, which succeeded in kick-starting a fresh look at the so-called Red Line (which honors the Davidson College school color).

A Wednesday meeting of the Metropolitan Transit Commission heard a detailed presentation of the financing plans. I couldn't make it, but here are several looks at the presentation: The Charlotte Business Journal's Erik Spanberg "Red Line rolls toward 2012 vote"  and's Christina Ritchie Rogers' "Homeowners won't see tax hike in Red Line plans, consultants say."

Here's a link to the various presentations and handouts from the MTC meeting.

Nothing's been decided yet, of course. The Lake Norman Transportation Commission will hold a four-hour summit on the proposal Dec. 13 in Mooresville (10 a.m.-2 p.m. at the Charles Mack Citizens Center, 215 N. Main St.).

Then the different governments, who'd have to agree to create a joint powers authority, must study the proposal and decide whether to opt in. From my observations, I'd predict Charlotte, Mecklenburg County and the Mecklenburg towns are on board. The trickier discussions will be in Mooresville and Iredell County. Although many in Mooresville have favored the transit idea, Iredell County commissioners have traditionally been wary of anything that might be viewed as a tax increase.

This proposal would create a sort of self-imposed tax assessment on owners of income-producing property (that is, not residential property) along the line. A part of the tax revenue from the new development would be used to help pay the costs of the rail construction. A portion of the new tax revenue generated from rail-related development would go to local general funds. This proposal would create a sort of self-imposed tax increase on property owners along the line, although it would send a proportion of those extra revenues into local general funds. (2:50 p.m.: Wording refinement on details of the proposal.)

Adding the freight proposal, which takes advantage of a national boom in freight rail fed by rising gas prices rise and freeway congestion, makes the Red Line plan more clearly an economic development maneuver. Luring freight-oriented industry might be a strategy Iredell leaders can be comfortable with, as opposed to simply building a commuter rail line that will draw more Charlotte-bound workers, which will bring homes and children needing county-funded services.

Like the $5 million regional HUD planning grant, the Red Line joint powers authority proposal is one more example of the need to treat the Charlotte region as more than a disconnected set of individual governments, but as, well, a region.


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