Raleigh will consider new transit proposal

A station downtown would serve local, regional, intercity rail and bus lines.

Staff WriterApril 23, 2010 

  • What's next?

    The Union Station plan will be available for public review after 2:30 p.m. today online at www.raleighnc.gov/planning/.

    Open-house meetings to discuss the plan will be scheduled May 12 at the city's Urban Design Center on Fayetteville Street.

  • A wye is a railroad intersection shaped like a triangle - or like the letter Y. By making the equivalent of a three-point turn, moving backward and forward, a train on one of the three tracks can turn around to face in the opposite direction.

    The Boylan Wye was created in 1856 as a junction of the N.C. Railroad and the Raleigh & Gaston Railway (now part of CSX). The layout grew more complicated when the present Norfolk Southern track was added in 1906.

— Raleigh's planning director will unveil a proposal today for a transportation hub that could create a new urban growth center on the western edge of downtown, bringing together riders on buses, light rail, local streetcars and interstate trains.

The proposed "Union Station" plan will be part of a three-hour City Council discussion today on how to untangle a messy confluence of three railroads and to meet pressing demands for Amtrak, Triangle Transit and local bus service. City officials want to prepare for a shifting mix of transit prospects on Raleigh's horizon.

Federal funds would be sought for 80 percent of the cost, estimated at $150 million to $210 million, with Raleigh and North Carolina splitting the rest.

"This will be as significant as RDU Airport - right in our downtown," Mitchell Silver, the city planning director, said in an interview.

Silver has kept his 104-page proposal under wraps until today, but he shared a draft with The News & Observer. Mayor Charles Meeker, who faced resistance to his recent push to build a new law enforcement center downtown, was noncommittal about Silver's plan.

"I haven't seen the proposal, so I can't comment on it," Meeker said. "But I think over the next five to seven years, as the state's high-speed rail project moves forward, there will be a number of opportunities to fund a new station in central Raleigh."

Silver resurrected a historic name for the proposed multi-modal transit center. Raleigh's first Union Station, built on Nash Square in 1891, served three railroads that met nearby in a snarled steel triangle called the Boylan Wye.

The new Union Station, centered east of the Wye on West Hargett Street, is also envisioned as Raleigh's next hub for dense retail, commercial and residential growth. It would fill a gap that separates the central business grid from the Boylan Heights and Glenwood South areas.

"All the trends converge right there," Silver said. "For us as a city, it will be absolutely enormous to have that type of transit gateway, knowing what's going to happen in the next 10 to 20 years with our oil dependency and the use of public transit."

The Union Station study marks an effort by Raleigh officials to take a lead role in determining how growing volumes of buses and trains will come together here. Planners say the 17-acre Wye could become one of the South's busiest transportation hubs.

Competing needs

Any decision will require agreement among a long list of railroads, landowners and government agencies that have competing needs. Conditions have shifted since Silver's study began in 2007, and more changes will come this year as agencies and railroads make choices about light rail, rush-hour commuter trains and a proposed 110-mph rail shortcut north from Raleigh to Richmond, Va.

"There are more complex situations around the country, and they've been solved," said David King, general manager of Triangle Transit, which owns the station site. "It's just a matter of making sure everybody who's got an interest is at the table, and that includes property owners in the area and the freight railroads."

The Union Station proposal calls for:

Freeing Amtrak from its cramped depot three blocks south of Hargett. A longer platform would be built north of the N.C. Railroad track, which forms the southern leg of the triangular Wye. A pedestrian bridge would tie the platform to Union Station a block away.

Raleigh has one of the smallest and busiest Amtrak stations in the Southeast, with more than 140,000 travelers a year. Rider counts will grow when North Carolina launches a third daily round-trip train between Raleigh and Charlotte in June, and a fourth in 2012.

Building a dedicated platform for Triangle Transit regional light-rail trains. One option would extend a new track curving across the Wye to a platform alongside the rails as they pass beneath West Morgan Street.

But Triangle Transit is reconsidering its path for a transit plan that voters might be asked to finance with a local half-cent sales tax in a November 2011 referendum. Electric light-rail trains could be routed along Morgan Street instead, moving the platform to the north side of Union Station.

Realigning the Norfolk Southern track, on the west side of the Wye, so freight trains would bypass an interstate passenger train platform beneath Morgan and Hillsborough streets.

This platform would be needed if state and federal agencies agree to move ahead with North Carolina's proposal to rebuild tracks abandoned by CSX between Raleigh and Richmond.

The Raleigh-Richmond link would carry trains at 110 mph, trimming 35 miles from every rail trip between Raleigh and Boston. It is the $3 billion centerpiece of the proposed Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor, which received its first federal grants of $570 million this year.

Providing bus platforms for Greyhound, Triangle Transit and Capital Area Transit, along with taxi queues. CAT is outgrowing its Moore Square transit center, seven blocks away. Regional plans would nearly double the number of local and Triangle buses in the next 15 years.

Frequent circulator buses, expanding CAT's downtown R-Line loop, would shuttle between Union Station and the Moore Square center. More circulator routes are envisioned in coming years along Glenwood and New Bern avenues, Hillsborough Street and Capital Boulevard, with the prospect one day of replacing rubber-tire buses with steel-wheel streetcars.

Designing Union Station as a grand public space, with Amtrak and transit offices and ticket counters and a parking deck in the center of the Wye. Retail, commercial and residential development would be planned around the station, and above it.

'A lot of moving parts'

Silver, the planning director, expects to see changes in the plan, which is being released today for public comment and review by other agencies that are updating their own plans this spring.

A financial report expected in coming weeks from the state-owned N.C. Railroad will shed light on prospects for up to nine rush-hour trains every workday. They could bring thousands of commuters into the Boylan Wye, from as far away as Burlington and Goldsboro.

The state Department of Transportation Rail Division, which worked with Raleigh on the study, has chimed in with different ideas for a new Amtrak platform. Norfolk Southern and CSX are expected to be cautious about any changes that might affect freight traffic in the future.

"There are a lot of moving parts, and there are a lot of different people who would have to be satisfied," said Mary-Ann Baldwin, a council member and Triangle Transit trustee. "The key is going to be everybody understanding that it's not just one partner's interest but the community's interest."

bruce.siceloff@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4527

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