by Carroll Gray

Three years ago, the four Lake Norman towns adopted an interlocal agreement to create the Lake Norman Transportation Commission. Since then, we’ve lobbied to keep the concept of the Red Line rail project alive, so the issue could be framed for our consideration. The state has played a significant role in helping that along. Finally, on Dec. 13, a plan for our collective consideration will be rolled out at a joint meeting in Mooresville.

I believe the true regional economic development nature of the Red Line Regional Rail Line motivated the state over a year ago to assign a consultant, at the state’s expense, to the Red Line Task Force of the Metropolitan Transit Commission to craft such a plan for our consideration.

Why is the state doing this, and what is the expected outcome?

The “why” is freight and commuter rail is part of the state’s long-term logistics, transportation and economic development vision. Linking the state together by rail to serve both people and commerce with a robust transportation network serves to enhance the state’s economic well-being and quality of life.

The Red Line Regional Rail Line already is 90 percent engineered and ready to go. When operational, it could act as a prototype for future state investments in rail. The consultant has been working with the Red Line Task Force for a year to analyze something called the “dual benefit approach” – transit-and-freight-oriented development – to assess its economic viability. It looks promising so far, with the final proposal due in about 30 days.

The consultant’s approach has been to work closely with the towns’ and counties’ staffs, including Charlotte and Mecklenburg and Iredell counties, to gather information on economic growth benefits deriving from that approach, including studying maps of projected growth areas, as well as testing the concept of a “dual benefit” (freight and transit) with the economic developers, public and private.

It’s been a detailed, sometimes painstaking, approach, but a deep dive for data, and required listening to professionals who are or would be involved in and benefit from such an investment.

As in any public investment, the question is: How is it paid for and who stands behind the debt? Also, is the investment a “sunk” or non-recoverable cost, or is it a true investment?

The consultants are proceeding on a tack that the Red Line is more of an investment of public and private dollars with a hard return on that investment, paying for itself over time, through induced growth and capturing some of that growth to repay the up-front construction bonds. We’ve learned that private investments in pubic infrastructure are happening across the U.S. and might work here.

The consultants will likely suggest folding this project a single district from downtown Charlotte to Mt. Mourne near Lowe’s headquarters, and that each government entity agrees to create a “benefits district” upload, or send a portion of revenues collected from the district, to a Joint Powers Authority for repaying the construction bonds.

The challenge is setting limits on the Joint Powers Authority under state law.

Most participants I’ve talked with prefer tightly restricting the authority’s powers to just collection and remitting revenues and maybe some planning and economic development collaboration, but that’s it.

As they say: “The devil is in the details.”

This presentation rollout to the public on Dec. 13 will trigger the required due diligence processes of the nine potential partners that would comprise a Joint Powers Authority – the Metrolina Transit Commission, Charlotte Area Transit System, Charlotte, Mecklenburg and Iredell counties, Huntersville, Cornelius, Davidson and Mooresville.

In the ensuing six months, I expect the potential partners will scrub the consultant’s recommendations, probing any concerns and making sure the concept fits the other needs and priorities of the given governmental unit. Then, a formal vote of each entity would be required for the concept to gain life.

I feel sure we can anticipate the issue of regional rail will be front and center for our region during 2012.

– Carroll Gray is the executive director of the Lake Norman Transportation Commission