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North Corridor Rail Demonstration Project Proposed

The North Corridor—Why So Slow?
One question seems to have been asked by more people than others in regard to planning for our new transit corridors. Can’t we get trains running sooner to our Lake Norman communities? There was a plan to get some service running by 2003. The idea behind this plan was to provide some limited rush hour service, using temporary facilities, while the widening of I-77 was taking place. This would relieve some of the pressure on I-77 during construction and give drivers an alternative to sitting in long lines. When NCDOT decided to move up the I-77 project it unfortunately became apparent that there was no way commuter rail service could be started before the highway widening got underway (already begun, actually). Therefore the urgency to get this stop-gap service underway was no longer there. The North Corridor planning process therefore dropped back to its original schedule, which was opening in 2006. However, because of a six month delay on all the transit corridors it now appears more likely that trains won’t run before 2007.

Why so long, many have asked. There’s a little used track out here and they’re not talking about light rail, which would require the construction of overhead wires. What has been most widely discussed for the North Corridor is some sort of regional or commuter rail. This would be either diesel locomotive hauled or self-propelled passenger car trains, operated mostly on existing tracks. It doesn’t seem like it should take five to six years to get this going and maybe it shouldn’t.

However we need to take a closer look at some of the problems that must be addressed before the trains can roll, and they are more than just a few. Maybe then we can get a better understanding about why things are not moving faster.

One: Following the guidelines set forth in order to get matching federal funding, a preferred mode of transit must be selected from various different alternatives. People in the North Corridor communities of Huntersville, Cornelius, Davidson and Mooresville have been solidly behind a rail mode of transit from the very beginning. But we must still go through the necessary process and formalize the results before moving forward. After this are the steps that must be followed leading up to a preliminary engineering, the phase the South Corridor is now in, to be considered for federal funding. Federal funding is very important because the one-half cent sales tax ear-marked for transit does not bring in nearly enough money to pay the cost of all these proposed transit corridors. Following all this procedure however can be time consuming.

Two: CATS is negotiating with the Norfolk Southern Railroad (NS) to purchase the tracks from Charlotte to Mooresville. It will be necessary to completely rebuild these tracks in order to operate commuter trains. The NS presently operates only one slow freight train a day over these tracks and therefore has little interest in improving them. If CATS were not to buy the right-of-way, they would be put in the position of having to improve tracks they do not own, and have little, if any, control over. Also there is presently no signaling on this line, which will be needed in the future for commuter trains. Anyone who has done any negotiating with a railroad knows how slow and unpredictable this can be.

Three: There are presently 109 grade crossings on the line. These include many private crossings that only lead to someone’s house. Some of these will be reconfigured to cut down substantially on the total number. The remaining crossings will be much better protected for trains and cars than is presently the case.

Four: Even if all the above were to happen tomorrow, there would still be no suitable station for an Uptown terminal for these trains. The present station on North Tryon is too far from the center of town to be useful to commuters. A new Multi-modal Transportation Center to be located on West Trade Street will be much better located, however it is unfortunately at least 6 or 7 years away from completion. Also, all the other stations along the line must still be built, along with all their necessary support facilities (parking lots, bus transfer bays, etc).

Five: On top of all this a new or rebuilt connection to the planned new Uptown terminal must be built, probably utilizing the unused track that roughly parallels Graham Street. Use of the present connection that heads uptown at Atando Junction would put commuter trains out on the NS mainline, to which NS would likely object.

If all of the above procedures are followed, you can begin to see why it may take five or six years before trains are running. Possibly some short cuts can be taken to get us through this maze a little faster. Maybe the north corridor could be opened in stages, while the balance is still under construction. Maybe a temporary commuter station could be opened Uptown, while the Multi-modal Transportation Center is still being finished. Maybe there are others out there with ideas about how we can make this happen sooner, rather than later.

The north corridor has one thing in its favor. They have always known what they wanted and where they wanted it built. Many other corridors don’t even know that! If Lake Norman communities and their citizens continue to be solidly behind a clearly defined project, as they have in the past, there must be a way to cut some time out of this project and see it through to completion.

July, 2002