City hopes for fresh start for Red Line; Norfolk Southern says nothing has changed

CHARLOTTE — The city’s ambitious goal for a Transformational Mobility Network includes plans to run the light rail past the airport, down to Ballantyne and out to Matthews. But in a presentation to the Charlotte City Council Monday night, the city revealed the preference is for the Red Line to move along first. The Red Line is a long-proposed commuter rail from uptown to Iredell County.

“We are just going to go back, dust it up, refine that study and move forward,” Assistant City Manager Taiwo Jaiyeoba said in a call with reporters prior to the meeting.

The key to the project is the ability to use the already existing tracks that are owned by Norfolk Southern. Norfolk Southern has long resisted this but the assistant city manager thinks the tide is turning.

“We feel there has been changes in leadership at Norfolk Southern that allows us to be able to reengage them in a positive way to really achieve this,” he said.

But as Jaiyeoba was addressing the city council, a spokesperson for Norfolk Southern rejected the notion that the company is changing its minds.

“There has not been any change from Norfolk Southern’s previous statement or stance,” said Jeff DeGraff, Norfolk Southern.

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In 2016, a spokesperson for Norfolk Southern said the company won’t share because the tracks “have significant strategic value for freight rail operations.”

Norfolk Southern’s stubbornness is one of the main reasons why Lake Norman leaders are skeptical of a sales tax hike for transit. After year after year of unfulfilled promises for the rail, the city manager is warning northern counties remembers.

“In my discussions with the town managers, especially the town managers to the north, I would say nothing has changed,” City Manager Marcus Jones said. “It is going to be very difficult to get this coalition together.”

Last month, the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce opposed the proposed sales tax increase.

Other town leaders have told Eyewitness News they are hesitant to support the measure.

[PAST COVERAGE: Some town leaders oppose tax hike to fund light rail expansion]

While there is a big question mark about the rail’s future in north Mecklenburg County, the city said towns will be able to rely on better bus service. The Transformational Mobility Network will also boost greenways and bike paths. City council members recognize they need to earn the trust of their northern neighbors.

“It’s going to be very crucial for us to get support from our North Mecklenburg neighbors,” Councilwoman Dimple Ajmera said.

Jaiyeoba estimates the Red Line will cost around $600 million and noted commuter rail travel is typically cheaper than light rail. Light rail expansion has been estimated to be between $8 million and $12 billion, but Jones said Monday night the city’s estimates differ from those figures. He did not disclose a new estimate.