News: CJ Exclusives

Raleigh Union Station May Depend on Sales Tax Hike

Backers divided over necessity of 1/2-cent transit tax for project completion

A daunting array of studies, interlocal agreements, street renovations, and track work are still in the discussion phase. But before a $212 million multimodal transit center can be built on the west side of downtown Raleigh, it’s unclear whether Wake County must pass a half-cent sales tax referendum to guarantee the project will be built.

“The half-cent sales tax is not make or break” for the Raleigh Union Station project in the Boylan Wye area, said David King, Triangle Transit Authority general manager.

TTA owns the vacant former Dillon Supply building that would be converted into a transit complex where buses and proposed commuter rail and light rail would pick up and drop off passengers. The plan also envisions local Capital Area Transit and long-distance Greyhound bus lines servicing the center, along with Amtrak passenger trains and Southeast High Speed Rail services.

The 2035 bus plan that was developed for Wake County proposing increased bus service, commuter, and light rail lines “is contingent upon half-cent sales tax revenues,” said Eric Lamb, transportation planning manager for the City of Raleigh. Bus service is top priority, with commuter rail second and light rail on the back burner, Lamb said.

Asked if the city would pursue construction of the transit complex if a half-cent tax were not passed, Lamb said, “obviously we wouldn’t build it if we didn’t have the services for it.”

But both King and Lamb said efforts continue to find other funding for the transit center in the hopes that it can be built out to full mass transit potential.

The rail station portion of the transit hub is “completely separate” from the half-cent sales tax, Lamb said, and it is viewed as the first phase of a tiered construction schedule that would layer in the other transit services. TTA-owned buildings and “a hodge-podge” of other buildings in the warehouse district would comprise the transit hub at full build-out.

“The current Raleigh station is an impediment to growth and ridership,” which have experienced “robust, double-digit” increases in passengers and revenue over the past three to four years, said Pat Simmons, head of the N.C. Department of Transportation rail division.

The existing station on Cabarrus Street, owned by the North Carolina Railroad Company, serves Amtrak’s Piedmont, Carolinian, and Silver Star trains. Norfolk Southern and CSX run freight trains nearby.

Simmons calls all those congested tracks the “spaghetti bowl of Boylan Wye,” and said working out a conflict-free feasibility analysis to accommodate current and future users has been tricky.

“We feel like we’re on the pathway to having a successful solution,” Simmons said. “We are testing that reality or perception by sharing the information with everyone” and gathering feedback.

The transit hub is not without critics. Dallas Woodhouse, state director of Americans for Prosperity, a limited government/free market grass-roots organization, called it “an ill-conceived project” that would be “a horrible use of tax dollars.”

He is opposed to the half-cent sales tax.

“We would fight the referendum in Wake, because if they don’t have it in Wake they won’t have it anywhere else,” Woodhouse said.

Durham County already has passed a half-cent tax, but is not collecting it until Wake and Orange counties pass their referendums. Officials in both counties have said they are still assessing whether to place a referendum before the voters in 2012.

“This will be a boondoggle that we will never get out of” if the transit hub is built, Woodhouse said. “It will make people who believed in the Global TransPark and the [Sparta] Teapot Museum just blush.”

He said Triangle political leaders and planners have “a big dream of European-style train service that will never happen” because the area is too spread out, rail and bus service will not reach everyone, and auto travel makes more sense.

“If you talk to people, you virtually can’t find anyone who will say, ‘Yeah, I’ll ride the train.’ There’s just not enough riders,” Woodhouse said.

But Simmons points to data for the Raleigh Amtrak station that, in his view, supports relocation.

In 2010, 164,475 passengers boarded or alighted at the Raleigh station out of 803,196 at 18 stations statewide. In 2011, 192,434 boarded or alighted out of 903,090 statewide.

“Outside of Richmond, it’s the best used station in the country,” Simmons said, and it is 80 percent supported by passenger fares. “Typically, for comparison, a transit operation is around 25 to 35 percent, and most intercity passenger trains are between 30, 40, and 50 percent” fare-funded.

He attributed the ridership increases to population growth, rising gas prices, improved service quality, and reducing travel times.

But lack of parking, a small waiting area, and a lack of an appropriate passenger platform inhibit further growth, he said.

“We’ve yet to develop a financing plan” for the conversion of the TTA building to a rail station, Simmons said. “If the half-cent sales tax is not approved, then there’s no risk to anyone because that’s not a funding source” for the passenger rail portion of the complex.

But he contends that the N.C. Department of Transportation’s work on other rail stations has been an economic catalyst. Some cities have developed multiblock master planning districts, partnering with private entities. The promise to build Durham Station sparked early private development in the Bull City’s downtown resurgence, Simmons said.

Expanding the rail station to a complex including TTA and the other bus and rail services “would help to bring more activity to the area and would be synergistic,” Simmons said. “You’d be successful at a different scale” without those services.

“We want a station that is commensurate with being a capital city and being a growing Southern city as well,” Lamb said.

That is why Raleigh City Council dedicated $3 million from a $40 million transportation bond approved by voters last fall to the transit hub project, he said.

But the rail station renovation itself is expected to cost in the $30 million range. Track enhancement, switching improvements, additional sidings, the extension of West Street, and adding an underpass to that street to allow traffic to go under the rail tracks is in “the $70 million to $75 million range right now,” Lamb said.

Where would that money come from?

“That’s a great question, and that’s really on everybody’s minds right now,” Lamb said. The city is preparing a Tiger Program grant application with the U.S. Department of Transportation for a subset of stimulus funding.

“I won’t ever say never” to another bond issue being sought, or diverting money allocated for other projects to the multimodal center, Lamb said.

“You can probably cobble the money together” to complete the project, TTA’s King said, but it is unclear “how the funding will shake out in the long term.”

As it stands, environmental impact studies, preliminary engineering, cost estimates, and other work remains to be done before shovels turn. Also to be decided is whether the buildings that would comprise the transit hub would be owned or leased, which participating entity would have ownership, and who would pay operation and maintenance costs.

Dan Way is a contributor to Carolina Journal.