More than two years ago, I had lunch with two Norfolk Southern executives. They said that they were concerned about the Red Line design and questioned whether freight and passenger traffic could exist along the line. In the two letters recently released, the concerns of Norfolk Southern are now documented.
For all this time, I have been telling the mayors, the consultants, NCDOT and anyone else who would listen that Norfolk Southern is key to this project and they needed to be engaged early in the process. And that the current design is almost 10 years old and wasn’t designed to carry freight. Everyone just ignored those warnings. They only added freight to the line so it would potentially qualify for Tax Increment Financing. And freight only represents 5 percent of the projected increase in property value anyway.
FACTS ARE MISREPRESENTED
There is a massive case here of misrepresentation of the facts by people involved in this project. When questioned in open meetings, NCDOT Deputy Secretary Paul Morris and others have stated that discussions were underway with Norfolk Southern, when in fact they weren’t started until January 11, 2012.
When questioned about the costs, Red Line Task Force leaders said that the costs were updated in December of 2011. What they didn’t say is that the costs were updated by adding an inflation factor to the previous design. They didn’t disclose that the design had been not been updated to handle both freight and passenger traffic, to newer technology (as pointed out by Norfolk Southern in their letter) or equipment that would be compatible with what Norfolk Southern currently uses.
Representations that the line could be extended to Statesville along existing, abandoned track and right of way has also proved to be wrong, per the Norfolk Southern letter.
While proponents say that this is an opening negotiation gambit by Norfolk Southern, it would take an irrepressible optimist to view it that way. Some items in the letter cannot be negotiated (for example, environmental impact study and purchase of land from Mt. Mourne to Statesville). Also the letter clearly states that there are no negotiations happening.
The fact is the Red Line Task Force, the mayors, NCDOT, LNTC, etc. all focused on the financing and legal structures that could apply to build the line without bothering to find out if the line would actually work or talking to the company that actually owns it. Representations of a public-private partnership were clearly misrepresented, as the only private partner could be Norfolk Southern and they are not interested in discussing that until they figure out whether it would even work.
Further, for task force leaders to say the project cost of $452 million was a fixed, not-to-exceed price, was ludicrous because the line wasn’t completely designed and the owner of the track and the company that would end up building it hadn’t even been consulted.
For Paul Morris, project consultant Mark Briggs, the town mayors and Lake Norman Transportation Commission Director Bill Thunberg to say Iredell County Board members were just providing a list of concerns to be addressed was more than spin – it was turbo-spin. I attended the Jan 17 meeting and those people recognized virtually all of the problems in the plan.
At that meeting I pointed out to them that Norfolk Southern had only been exposed to the plan the previous week, that the design was old, etc. Two days later, the December 19, 2011 letter from Norfolk Southern was published by the Charlotte Business Journal and Tuesday of this week the results of that January 11, 2012 meeting was released to the press. The existence of the first letter was not disclosed to the municipalities as far as I know.
TAXPAYERS ON THE HOOK
This is a travesty. Not only of poor judgment and planning, but clear breaches of faith on the part of the proponents of this plan. This is another example of government entities trying to get into a business they don’t understand. MI-Connection is an example of government getting into a business it knows nothing about, a similar situation promoted by some of the same people. The taxpayers ended up making up the difference.
There is no way to avoid taxpayer liability for this line. First of all, whether it is the local property owner paying, the state paying or CATS paying, it is all taxpayer money. Also, one cannot believe that the state would assume 75 percent of the financial liability for the construction and operation of the line without conditions being placed on the municipalities so they deliver on commitments needed to make the line successful. And by foregoing 75 percent of incremental tax revenue that would occur from growth via Tax Increment Financing, how would the municipalities fund the infrastructure and services needed to support the influx of additional people? Even now, with the municipalities keeping 100 percent of the revenues from growth, most have either raised taxes or not lowered their tax rates to neutralize the impact of the recent revaluation. Cornelius was the only town in Mecklenburg County to do that. Since keeping 100 percent of the property tax revenue from growth isn’t enough to support it, why would 25 percent be enough? For example, how many schools will CMS build to handle the children of the 80,000 to 100,000 additional people expected to live along the line? What about roads, police, fire, administration, planning staffs, etc.?
It is time to stop this madness. All the municipalities should cease their evaluations of this project until the Norfolk Southern situation is resolved. The problems stated are so massive that there is no way they will be resolved by the end of March or June for that matter. According to Norfolk Southern, the Red Line timeline cannot be met. Would the municipalities dare to tax property owners along the Line without having worked out every facet of the design, operation and construction? I think not.
Jim Bensman is a Cornelius resident and a retired Cornelius commissioner
Jan. 24, 2012, “Norfolk Southern says Red Line may not be feasible on its track.”
Jan. 17, 2012, “Iredell board skeptical about rail plan, but puts off ‘no’ vote”
Jan. 20, 2012, “In the news: Norfolk Southern wonders if Red Line is viable.”
See previous coverage of the Red Line on CorneliusNews.net under the “Red Line Regional Rail Project” tag