Thursday, July 26, 2012

Red line or Sidelined? New transit debate in Charlotte, NC

Residents in Northern Mecklenburg County are preparing to vote on a planned commuter line from Charlotte to its outermost suburbs to the North. As a Charlottean I am very familiar with the traffic that plagues I-77 and have longed for a solution to congestion and development patterns in that part of the county.

The proposed commuter rail would take on a different form from the light rail that currently serves the residents in Southern Mecklenburg County. The red line would be a 25-mile line from Uptown Charlotte to Mooresville that would be similar to the MARC and VRE trains in Washington, D.C. in that the line would be shared by Amtrak and Norfolk Southern.  

The planned line would also be constructed using value capture, which is a rarely used financing technique for transportation projects in North Carolina.

The plan calls for two types of value capture. The first is a special assessment district, formed by a majority of business owners along the Red Line who agree to pay an extra property tax to fund construction. The second form of value capture would be tax-increment financing. I’ve mentioned the effectiveness of TIF in a previous post – essentially TIF uses earnings from expected higher property taxes to pay off bonds used to finance construction of a new rail line. 

County commissioners, along with the city of Charlotte’s Planning Department, have also created design guidelines around the stations that would promote walkability and sustainable development.

While transit enthusiasts are excited about the proposal, local elected officials are not as thrilled. This may present an issue because the Iredell County Commissioners and Mecklenburg County Commissioners must agree on a plan to submit to the state for funding.

The future of the red line is unknown, but its creation is definitely setting precedents for innovative financing and public private partnerships. Ultimately, political and business leaders in Charlotte will have to decide whether to continue investing in transportation for a sustainable future or continue to sink money into expanding roads that will only solve problems in the short term.

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