by Bob Geary
And you thought we'd have to wait another decade at least to get rail-transit service in Raleigh. Not at all. In fact, we already have rail-transit service — didn't you know? You can jump on a train to Durham three times a day, and three times a day you can jump on a train in Durham that'll take you back to Raleigh. With stops in between at the Cary train station.
It's called Amtrak, and it costs $6 or $7 one-way. Scheduled trip times run 35 minutes, plus or minus. (Not counting waiting times if your train is late arriving in Durham from Charlotte or in Raleigh from Washington, DC.)
Which is what the story ("Building Could Save Rail Hub") in the N&O this morning was all about. It's about a building for Amtrak and, prospectively, for some future Raleigh-to-Durham trains that would be similar in operation to Amtrak's trains.
Now, if that kind of service is NOT what you had in mind for rail-transit ... if you were thinking instead of a light-rail/streetcar system with lots of station stops in lots of places between downtown Raleigh, downtown Cary and downtown Durham, then yes, such a thing is still a decade off or two — or more. This building: Not relevant.
But commuter-rail, as opposed to light-rail, is here now, sort of. Three round-trips a day with a fourth planned. And that's just Amtrak.
An additional four Amtrak-style round trips between Raleigh and Durham are in our not-too-distant future if the DOT and the Triangle Transit Authority can get them organized using that 1/2-cent sales tax for transit we've dreamed of for so long — and maybe some federal $$$ as well.
If the 1/2-cent transit tax were in place, the money would flow to the Triangle Transit Authority, which might operate these additional trains itself or contract with someone else for their operation — perhaps the N.C. Roadroad Corp., a state-controlled entity which owns the tracks on which the Amtrak trains (and some freight trains) run.
That's all a pretty big "if" because, of course, the 1/2-cent tax must be approved by the voters in Wake County before any money can flow to the TTA for use in Raleigh, Cary or on the Wake County side of RTP. And the voters can't approve it unless the Wake County Commissioners agree to put the question to a ballot referendum. And the Republican-led commissioners board so far has shown zero interest in taking that step.
Durham County voters, on the other hand, will decide this fall on the question of a 1/2-cent sales tax for transit in Durham. Approval there could light a fire in Wake for improved service. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.
Even without the additional commuter-rail trains to Durham, Raleigh's passenger-rail station — the Amtrak station on West Cabarrus Street — is woefully inadequate. No amenities for the waiting passengers. Not nearly enough parking. Far too small for a city of 400,000. Amtrak, which leases the station from the N.C. Railroad Corp., desperately wants something better so it can serve more riders. DOT wants it too. Ditto Raleigh.
A year ago, the Raleigh planning department rolled out an ambitious scheme (I'm tempted to say pie-in-the-sky, but I believe the point was to get everybody dreaming a little) for a new "Union Station" big enough to serve ALL of our future rail needs in downtown Raleigh — Amtrak, commuter-rail, high-speed rail, light-rail, any kind of rail you want — at a cost of, oh, who knows? Guesses ranged upwards from $150 million.
Just as light-rail is a distant hope, however, so too is any such Union Station scheme. (So is high-speed rail, for that matter.)
Meanwhile, Amtrak needs a station now. And if we do get a 1/2-cent sales tax approved in Wake, the additional commuter-rail trains between Raleigh and Durham could be up and running in a few years, in which case they'd need a station too.
Enter, yesterday, NC DOT with a more realistic station plan that, at least at first blush, may be feasible in the foreseeable future and, in the long run, be not incompatible with a Union Station idea, though it doesn't square exactly with the Union Station scheme as unveiled in April, 2010.
DOT's idea is an adaptive reuse, at a guesstimated cost of $20 million, of one of the old Dillon Supply buildings in the warehouse district of Raleigh, one you may not have even realized was there. Most of us are familiar with the Dillon Buildings on West Street, which were purchased by the TTA six years ago in connection with its original light-rail plans. But there's another Dillon building not on West Street. It's actually located in the railroad wye, hidden behind a small non-Dillon building that TTA also purchased. Right next to it is a pretty good-sized parking lot, which sits behind the Flanders Art Gallery building.
The Dillon building in question is the one in the distance in the photo below, looking west on West Martin Street. It's a big old steel-and-brick building located behind the little building with the Capital City Sedan sign on it. In the DOT plan, the little building would be torn down, creating the chance for a nifty plaza in front of the big old building, which would become Raleigh's new Amtrak/commuter-rail station — with plenty of room for shoppes and such.
At this point, the DOT idea is just that — for the next couple of months, DOT is studying whether the Dillon building is structurally sound. If it is, a search for federal, state or other dollars would follow. Raleigh would be asked to pay 10 percent — about $2 million — which Will Allen, co-chair of the city's passenger rail advisory task force reckoned would be a pretty good bargain.
Until the new Contemporary Art Museum opened a few weeks ago, I'd never been in the Flanders gallery, let alone behind it. But my search for a parking space one night led me back to the parking lot and, for the first time, I paid attention to the building back there with it. This map from DOT shows its location. For contrast, the planning department's Union Station would've occupied two full blocks on the west side of West Street between West Morgan and West Martin:
[Pdf of the map — bigger, easier to see, is here: RaleighstationDOTplanmap.pdf
The way this would work, based on what the DOT Rail Division's Allan Paul said yesterday in a walk-through with members of the City Council's passenger rail advisory task force, is:
1) The existing Amtrak station would be converted to some other use by its owner, the N.C. Railroad Corp. (it used to be a restaurant).
2) A new Amtrak station would be set up in the designated Dillon Supply building, the one marked "Proposed Raleigh Train Station."
3) The station would also have room for TTA commuter-rail trains if and when they come along.
4) The Amtrak and TTA trains would each use the existing NCRR rail corridor. But an extra set of tracks, and platforms, would be built to bring them into and out of the rail station. Passengers would walk out the front door of the rail station to reach the platforms.
5) Inside the rail station would be a waiting area, shoppes, restaurants; it's a huge building.
6) In front of the rail station, a plaza could welcome visitors to a great view down West Martin Street, with the new CAM and Designbox on their right and Nash Square just two blocks ahead.
7) The same plaza could serve as the front door for a shopping area in the Dillon buildings going north, all of which are sitting empty and await adaptive re-use (or, ugh, teardown).
8) A future high-speed rail platform is pencilled in ("Proposed S-Line Platform"). It needs to be r-e-a-l long, so you see it extending north from West Hargett Street all the way into the Glenwood South district, going under both West Morgan Street and Hillsborough Street en route.
9) A future light-rail line may well come into downtown Raleigh on West Morgani Street, with a station stop somewhere between Boylan Avenue and West Street.
10) Planners and architects, get busy: We need a people-mover system of some kind to get folks from the rail station to the light-rail station to the high-speed station — and put a roof over it all, OK?
Now, bottom line on this idea. It doesn't advance light-rail much, if at all. What it does advance is the potential for commuter-rail that comes into Raleigh from Garner, Clayton, and Johnston County and then departs for Cary and Durham.
The whole idea of light-rail stations, remember, is to transform development patterns in Raleigh and the Triangle by fostering dense, mixed-used developments around each station ... thus curbing sprawl in areas not near a station.
This is almost the opposite — it's rail designed to serve the sprawl out to Johnston County in much the same way commuter rail into New York City supported the sprawling development of New Jersey, Long Island and Connecticut in the 1950s, back when gasoline cost 30 cents a gallon.
Future commuter-rail connections could run north out of Raleigh to Wake Forest and Franklin County, other places where sprawl can find a home.
Politically speaking, it would be grand if we were ready to build light-rail and say no to commuter-rail — or, at least, no to only building commuter-rail.
I'm afraid, though, that where we actually are politically — at least in Wake County — is under a Republican regime that is fundamentally opposed to any sort of transit, but which may be willing to swallow commuter-rail transit because their developer friends (funders) want it.
Maybe Durham, with its 1/2-cent sales tax, will lead the way to light-rail in the Triangle with a system that goes west to Chapel Hill — leaving Raleigh with a goose egg ... and light-rail envy?