by Bob Geary
On Friday, we reported the good news about Raleigh's Union Station, Phase 1: It's fully funded at $60 million. In the buildup to that announcement, I heard one other, discordant note. If and when Raleigh adds commuter-rail and high-speed rail service to the current, very limited repertoire of Amtrak trains running through town, the rail corridor coming into the Union Station complex will need to be widened.
Why? To make room for additional sets of tracks for the trains and for the platform that will service the high-speed line.
And what's in the way of widening the corridor? The warehouse buildings that the Triangle Transit Authority sold and Citrix, the software firm, plans to occupy as its new Raleigh headquarters.
The picture above, which I snapped one night last week when I was in the area, shows just how close to the Citrix buildings the train tracks already are. When I raised that issue with Paul Morris, deputy secretary of the N.C. Department of Transportation and DOT's point man on all things railroad, he confirmed that he's in talks with Citrix. "At some point in the future, we'll need to lop off the one bay that is closest to the tracks," Morris said.
"It won't come without a cost," Morris added.
In other words, because TTA sold the buildings to private owners, DOT will be forced to pay to get a slice of them taken off. DOT contributed 25 percent of the purchase price when TTA bought the buildings from Dillon Supply Company a decade ago, but it was never a co-owner, Morris said. Most of the money came from a federal grant.
When the TTA sold them for a reported $2 million, DOT received 25 percent of the sale price.
Morris said DOT was aware, prior to TTA's decision to sell the buildings, that the TTA was thinking of unloading them. DOT did not know of the talks with Citrix, and with the developers (Crown and Cherokee) who were offering to be the middlemen in the transaction, until the Indy and others reported on the deal in the spring.
The buildings in question are located west of West Street between West Morgan Street on the north and West Hargett Street on the south. (Union Station, Phase 1, is another block to the south.)
The decision to sell the buildings to private developers throws the TTA's own light-rail transit plans into confusion because, as things stand now, the light-rail line in downtown Raleigh is supposed to run on West Morgan Street. Until TTA sold off the buildings, it was thought that they'd be renovated to serve as the light-rail station and integrated into a grand Union Station scheme put together by the city in 2010. (Click on this link for background on all that.)
Instead, they were sold for use by Citrix, and are now more or less in the way of any connection between the new Amtrak/commuter rail/high-speed rail station that is Union Station, Phase 1 and a light-rail stop on West Morgan.
According to city and state transportation officials, the West Morgan Street route is now being reconsidered. It's possible the light-rail route will be pushed to West Hargett Street, an alignment the city rejected earlier because of elevation changes that would require a bridge — a bridge that would cut off one or more city streets when it came back to ground.
Light-rail is thought to be a long decade or even two away from happening in Raleigh.
On the other hand, commuter-rail trains (Amtrak-like service, but limited to a route using the existing rail corridor from Garner/Johnston County to Raleigh to Durham) could be a reality in less than a decade.
Meanwhile, DOT and its Virginia counterpart continue to plow ahead on plans for the Southeast High-Speed Rail service with the hope of obtaining a major federal grant in a second Obama Administration. "Best case" for launching high-speed rail in Raleigh, Morris guessed, is 7-10 years.
City Planning and Economic Development Director Mitchell Silver told me last week that he's asked the Citrix design team to create an "arcade" passageway so passengers can walk comfortably between the Amtrak/commuter rail station down at West Martin Street and a future light-rail station on West Morgan. Without some passageway, that's a 3 1/2-block trek on the sidewalk.
Morris, meanwhile, is suggesting that Citrix design its new headquarters so that the west edge can be taken off when the corridor is widened. DOT will pay for an easement. Failing that, it would be forced to condemn the entire property, either now — before the renovations - or later, when the Citrix complex would presumably be worth a good deal more.
One high-ranking DOT official told me privately that the TTA sale could end up costing the state $10 million.
$10 million? I asked Morris. "That's if we're forced into condemnation," he said. "The good news is, we're in talks with Citrix already."
The even better news, Morris added a bit later, is that Union Station is becoming a reality, moving the need for compatible building designs on adjacent properties out of the realm of the merely hypothetical. "We're in pretty good shape now because of it," he said.