In January, Iredell County commissioners unanimously found wanting a proposal to build a $452 million, 25-mile commuter rail line from the center of Charlotte through Huntersville, Cornelius, and Davidson, to near Mooresville.
The proposed Red Line as it is called certainly constitutes a questionable use of scarce transportation dollars. The fact the idea has come this far offers a good insight into the politics of transit.
The basic formula for building rail lines in North Carolina is straightforward: The state picks up a quarter of the construction costs, locals pay another quarter, typically through a dedicated local-option sales tax for transit, and the federal government pays the remaining half.
But with the Charlotte-to-almost Mooresville Red Line, projected ridership is so low that the Charlotte Area Transit System realized several years ago that there was approximately zero chance that the feds would phony up half the construction costs — even during the pro-transit Obama Administration.
Undeterred, CATS has kept on trying. The funding plan for the Red Line has changed. The idea now is to expect development along the proposed line to pick up what would have been the feds’ share. In other words, build it and they (developers) will come. Some local officials are so confident that this will happen that they describe the proposal as being “riskless.”
The Iredell County Commission did not agree, and said so by a 5-0 vote. Commissioners worry that the rail line would go over budget, as often happens with rail lines, and that they will be forced to raise property taxes to finish the project. Iredell commissioners also question whether the development that’s necessary to fund the line will happen.
David Hartgen, emeritus professor of transportation studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, thinks that’s a valid concern.
“There are only about 50 parcels of land along the 25-mile corridor,” Hartgen said. “The tax on each of those parcels would have had to be huge to generate the $250 million needed.”
The parcels would have to be worth more than $4 billion to generate that tax value, he said. “There’s no way there’s $4 billion worth of property in that corridor, even if there were a demand to develop it.”
Hartgen says a better use for the money CATS wants to spend on the Red Line would be to improve congested Interstate 77, which in places runs only about a mile from the proposed rail line route. Ridership on the Red Line in 2030 is projected at only 5,600 a day — 2,800 round trips. The need to widen the highway remains.
So why does a dog of a project like the Red Line even get this close to being approved? Many liberals reflexively think that any transit project must be wonderful. Local media’s unwillingness to ask challenging questions plays a role as well.
More fundamentally, though, the Red Line is simply a necessary byproduct of the process of originally selling a then-$1 billion transit plan to Mecklenburg County voters in 1998. Before voters could be persuaded to support a tax increase for transit, something had to be offered to citizens throughout the county.
In the case of northern Mecklenburg County, that something was the prospect of commuter rail service to Uptown Charlotte. Whether that something would be affordable was beside the point.
Iredell County’s rejection of the proposal won’t end the matter. The board that oversees CATS gives Huntersville, Cornelius, and Davidson a vote, making the Red Line the transportation equivalent of kudzu — something that is virtually impossible to kill off.
Michael Lowrey is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.