News & Media

Norfolk Southern tells Charlotte It’s Willing to Consider Commuter Rail to North Mecklenburg

By Erik Spanberg – Managing Editor, Charlotte Business Journal

Norfolk Southern Corp. (NYSE: NSC) has put Charlotte’s transit plans for North Mecklenburg back in play.

Charlotte city government today confirmed the contents of a letter sent in July by Norfolk Southern to the mayor and city manager that opens the door to a possible 25-mile commuter rail line between uptown and Iredell County.

Michael McClellan, Norfolk Southern’s senior vice president and chief strategy officer, told Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles and City Manager Marcus Jones in his letter that the company “is willing to consider engaging with the City of Charlotte and other interested parties in the region regarding a possible transaction of the (tracks connecting uptown to Mooresville). We have not decided upon what form such a transaction might take, whether an outright sale of the (rail) or some variant or some variant of a lease.”

The letter ended with a caveat: “This correspondence solely reflects our willingness to engage, and is not a binding commitment that Norfolk Southern, ultimately, would proceed to a transaction.”

The Charlotte Ledger first reported the contents of the letter.

Norfolk Southern did not immediately respond to a request from CBJ for comment today.

Charlotte city government released a prepared statement today on Norfolk Southern’s shift in perspective, expressing cautious optimism that further progress can be made. Lyles issued a separate response, highlighting the possibility of moving forward with the proposed Lynx Red Line connecting uptown and Mooresville as a step that could — finally — generate momentum for a long-stalled $13.5 billion transit expansion proposal.

Business and political leaders in north Mecklenburg have opposed transit expansion for years, citing the meager crumbs that have come their way despite 25 years of paying into a county-wide transit tax.

Ed Driggs, a Republican councilman and head of the city’s transportation committee, acknowledged as much today.

“I’ll put it this way: After years of being an insurmountable obstacle because of Norfolk Southern’s unwillingness to talk, they are now willing to talk,” Driggs told CBJ, referring to the company tracks that are needed to build and operate a commuter line to the northern suburbs as proposed decades ago.

“This is a big deal,” he added. “We were really just kind of stuck. It’s no longer the barrier it was.”

Driggs declined to put a specific timeline on when a more definitive answer might be reached, but said he hopes city government and Norfolk Southern will be able to disclose more progress in the next month or two.

Jeff Tarte, a former three-term state senator and former mayor of Cornelius, is the incoming chair of the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce. The Lake Norman Chamber has opposed the proposed county-wide sales tax increase for transit, in part because of a lack of investment in north Mecklenburg projects from the existing half-cent transit tax.

Tarte told CBJ today that Norfolk Southern’s change in perspective about considering commuter rail is “an opening salvo to say we need to come back to the table.” But, Tarte warned, there are many other potential snags, including what type of technology is used (“diesel commuter rail is now dead — in a green economy that makes no sense”), how much additional cost might be borne by north Mecklenburg, whether the Norfolk Southern tracks remain the best route given current development patterns and the condition of the tracks.

Norfolk Southern’s willingness to negotiate on use of its tracks comes as city government leaders and the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance, among others, continue to try to generate enthusiasm for the transit expansion plan unveiled at the end of 2020 by a 25-person committee appointed by the mayor.

Lyles and other supporters of the plan hoped to hold a referendum as soon as November 2021 for a one-cent sales tax hike that would be used to pay 60%, or $8 billion, of the cost. The remaining 40% of the $13.5 billion proposal would come from federal grants, though none have been approved or even sought yet.

Driggs said today that transit supporters now hope to have the sales tax on the ballot in November 2024. To get that far, the referendum must be approved by the state legislature and the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners.

Republican leaders in the state legislature have said publicly that they are skeptical of the Charlotte transit plan’s emphasis on rail rather than roads. The plan allocates roughly two-thirds of the money for a 29-mile east-west light-rail line that would go from Matthews through uptown and on to the airport and Gaston County.

Lyles is a Democrat, and nine of the 11 council members are, too.

The Red Line has been mostly mothballed for years because of Norfolk Southern’s refusal to consider allowing commuter rail on its tracks. In 2021, then-Charlotte planning director Taiwo Jaiyeoba told council that the city anticipated a newfound openness from the railroad company to consider commuter rail.

A Norfolk Southern spokesperson, Heather Garcia, responded to CBJ’s questions with this statement: “Though this line remains a strategic part of our network, we have always valued our relationship with Charlotte and the surrounding communities. Wherever we can, we will continue to work with them on projects that intersect with our network, the needs of our customers and the interests of the region.”

Joe Bost, chief advocacy officer at CLT Alliance, said, “We are encouraged by the new developments in this important corridor of our region. As the City of Charlotte and northern towns continue to grow, it is crucial to have smart mobility solutions and regional infrastructure that support a thriving economy, allow our region to remain competitive, and maintain a high quality of life.”

Driggs pointed to council’s approval last month to restart design work on the Red Line as a sign of the momentum that city government leaders glimpsed over the summer. Council’s decision awarded a $5 million contract to HDR Engineering Inc. for planning and designing work on the proposed commuter line, work expected to include public outreach and revised analysis of grade crossings, track design, vehicle technologies, service levels and station locations.

Jaiyeoba estimated the cost of the 25-mile Red Line to be $600 million in 2021. As originally envisioned, it would run from Gateway Station uptown along Interstate 77 and connect the towns of Davidson, Cornelius, Huntersville and Mooresville to the center city.

Discussion of the Red Line is likely to surface next week as part of the monthly Metropolitan Transit Commission meeting. The MTC is made up of elected and administrative leaders from city and county government as well as surrounding towns that pay the transit tax. Together, they oversee spending decisions for Charlotte Area Transit System, the entity formed in the late-1990s to operate buses, trains and other transit lines.

The transit agency, known as CATS, has been mired in controversy for the past year. All its top executives have left during that time and city government and the MTC are at odds over who has ultimate authority to set policy on how CATS is revamped.

“For the past two decades the Red Line has been a key part of the transit vision adopted by the City Council and the Metropolitan Transit Commission (MTC),” the city statement released today said. “The city has been following through on what has been contemplated for more than 20 years as rail for Davidson, Cornelius, Huntersville, and North Mecklenburg has always been an important part of our region’s transit vision.

“We are not going to comment on specifics but Norfolk Southern has advised the City of Charlotte that they are willing to consider a possible transaction related to their O Line, which, of course, is the rail line we would transform into the Red Line. We are cautiously optimistic that Norfolk Southern will proceed with our current discussions and engage in a fruitful dialogue, and that we will be able to find common ground that would lead to a transaction.”

Lyles’ statement said, “I’m greatly encouraged by the discussions with Norfolk Southern. Mobility is a shared priority for Charlotte and the region. Our region’s leadership knows this is good for business, good for opportunity and good for the environment. I look forward to our continued discussions with Norfolk Southern and finding a path forward for the Red Line, which is an exciting and key part of our mobility vision …

“Connecting Charlotte to North Mecklenburg has always been the pathway to unlocking regional mobility and getting state authorization for a sales tax. Working together, this long-awaited opportunity is before us.”