In an otherwise gloomy week for transit advocates, Raleigh landed a $21 million federal grant to begin work on a new train station in downtown’s warehouse district.
The TIGER grant means the city can begin track and signal upgrades necessary for Amtrak trains to pull into the station, which is planned for a vacant Dillon Supply building at the west end of Martin Street.
City, state and federal dignitaries will gather at the site of the future station today to announce the award.
The city had asked for a lot more – $60 million as part of a joint application with N.C. Department of Transportation and Triangle Transit. The $21 million will go toward track improvements, with station renovations to come later.
“You can’t make the station happen without doing the track work first,” said Eric Lamb, the city’s transportation planning manager. “This (money) is not going to get us the station. This is going to get us started on the station.”
Transit backers suffered a setback earlier in the week when Wake County commissioners voted 4-3 against holding talks on a half-cent sales tax increase for expanding transit. The decision means Wake voters will not decide in November whether to support a transit plan that calls for more bus service and commuter rail linking Durham, Cary, Raleigh and Garner.
“It seems to be clear to everyone, except the majority on the county commission, the direction we need to take with transit,” Karen Rindge, director of the WakeUP Wake County advocacy group, said Thursday.
“We wouldn’t have gotten the grant if this weren’t a good idea for Raleigh and Wake County.”
City was braced for rejection
Raleigh officials said they were not optimistic about winning even a small amount because of the number of communities competing for limited federal dollars.
In the last round of the TIGER program, the U.S. Department of Transportation chose 46 projects from a field of 848 applicants.
Built in 1950, the city’s current Amtrak station on Cabarrus Street looks like a relic from another era. It served 192,000 passengers last year, making Raleigh the second-busiest hub in the Southeast behind Richmond but ahead of Miami, Atlanta and Charlotte.
The planned rail hub would represent the first component of Union Station, a network of downtown transit venues providing service for local and regional buses and trains.
“This is a major step toward transforming not only our transportation network but also the west side of downtown,” said city planning director Mitchell Silver. “We envision Union Station to be a Gateway to the South, and this grant will help us move closer.”
The cost of the station rose to $75 million after site planners added track, platform and signal improvements and factored in a proposed extension of West Street, which will allow pedestrians, cyclists and cars to travel on a roadway beneath the tracks.
In March, City Councilman John Odom cast the lone vote against $7 million in local matching money. Odom called the project an “expensive proposition.”
A modern, well-designed train station can become a landmark for Raleigh, said Councilman Bonner Gaylord.
Planners envision a retro look highlighted by big windows, a spacious waiting hall and a glass entrance with views of downtown.
“First impressions are very important,” Gaylord said. “I’ve heard a lot of people talk about the new airport terminal and how their perception is very strong from the moment they arrive.”