RALEIGH — The old Dillon Supply steel fabrication building, once used to assemble boilers, smokestacks and exteriors for North Carolina's early skyscrapers, could find new life as a rail hub for Raleigh after all.
It's an idea that has captured the attention of city leaders as they rethink a grand vision for a new terminal and explore less costly options to meet Raleigh's transportation needs.
The vacant building was purchased by Triangle Transit in 2005 as the agency planned stations for a regional rail system. But the system was shelved when federal funding didn't materialize.
Now the city is eyeing the property with hopes of saving money on a new Amtrak station and transit center of its own.
The thinking: Instead of building something new, why not renovate?
Last year, city planners proposed building a new transit hub off West Hargett Street in downtown's warehouse district. Called Union Station, it was designed to serve riders on buses, light rail, local streetcars and interstate trains. It would cost at least $150 million.
The Dillon building - about a block south, at the end of Martin Street in the center of the Boylan Wye, a busy rail junction on the western edge of downtown - could serve the same purpose for much less.
Renovating it would cost $20 million, state transportation officials said Wednesday during a tour of the building with local officials and rail advocates. The city's portion would be 10 percent, with state and federal sources picking up the rest.
"For $2 million, the city would essentially own a $20 million facility," said Will Allen III, chairman of the city's rail task force.
The makings of a hub
Built in 1960, the space housed workers who fashioned huge sheets of steel into industrial equipment and exteriors for steel office towers.
"It's not hard to put on your creative glasses and think, in the hands of the right people, this building could really be something," said David King, chief executive of Triangle Transit. "The opportunity is there."
The 17-acre Wye, planners say, could become one of the South's busiest transportation hubs.
Amtrak says 164,745 passengers boarded or exited last year from trains at its cramped Raleigh depot, making it the busiest stop between Richmond, Va., and the auto-train station in Sanford, Fla.
The state Department of Transportation's rail division has helped build or renovate rail stations in 16 North Carolina cities, including the conversion of a former tobacco warehouse in Durham.
"We're hoping this is No. 17," said Allan Paul, an operations director in the rail division of the state Department of Transportation.
The possibility has progressed enough that City Council members added $3 million to a transportation bond on the Oct. 11 ballot. The money would cover the city's share of renovation costs as well as sidewalks, bus shelters and public upgrades near the station.
The engineering upfit
Crews would expand the terminal in phases, starting with a platform for Amtrak and later adding a second platform for high-speed rail, which could require a tunnel or overhead walkway to allow travelers to cross the tracks.
The flat roof could accommodate solar panels to generate electricity for the building, officials said. An upfit would preserve the building's industrial feel - exposed brick, ductwork and windows - and possibly leave space for retailers inside the terminal, Paul said.
The main entrance on Martin Street could get a facelift to add an attractive facade and big windows facing downtown.
Meanwhile, the nearby block formerly envisioned for the new Union Station could become a redevelopment project.
Several obstacles remain. State and federal aid has all but dried up amid the recession, creating uncertainty for long-sought Triangle rail.
"If we had been having this discussion three years ago, we'd probably have this thing up and running in 18 months to two years," Paul said.
Devil in the details
Problems could pop up as engineers get into the details of converting a 1960s-era industrial plant into a modern train terminal.
Freight carriers Norfolk Southern and CSX, which use sections of track in downtown, have expressed concerns about the concept, though they're willing to talk.
"Ultimately we've got to have their approval for doing something at this station," Paul said.
One thing is clear: Amtrak isn't likely to provide any money for the new station. "They're broke," Paul said.
City Councilman Thomas Crowder questioned whether the station matches up with the layout of rail lines in downtown, including a future light rail corridor that would connect to N.C. State University and beyond.
Every possible location for a downtown rail station has challenges, Allen said. "It's very difficult to find the perfect place for a Union Station," he said.
Staff writer Bruce Siceloff contributed to this story.
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