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City of Raleigh awarded grant to improve train station downtown

October 10, 2013

Published here on September 10, 2013.

Last Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan’s office announced that the federal government awarded the city of Raleigh a $10 million grant to revamp Union Station, located in downtown Raleigh. This follows a $21 million grant the previous year for the same project.

Hagan announced the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery V grant in a news release on Wednesday.

“Completing a new Union Station is an important investment that will bring economic development to the City of Raleigh and improve the lives of commuters and tourists who utilize the rail facilities every day at one of the Southeast’s busiest stations,” Hagan said in the news release.

Eric Lamb, a manager in the City of Raleigh Office of Transportation Planning, said the previous year’s grant for $21 million was a “long-shot” and that last week’s announcement felt as if “lighting struck twice.”

“We were exuberant to get any money in the first place,” Lamb said.  “To get money from TIGER V after getting money from [last year’s] TIGER IV is almost unheard of. So this is actually a pretty big deal.”

Currently, Union Station’s principle purpose is to service Amtrak trains traveling through the city. Raleigh Department of Transportation officials have proposed a multi-phase plan to remake the station, adding rails, additional parking and bus lines to open up the now-cramped station at the foot of West Martin Street. The grant money will move the city closer to turning the first phase of the plan into reality.

“We are fundamentally replacing the existing train station we have now, which is an old and outdated station,” Lamb said. “It should have been replaced 20 years ago, if I had to guess.”

Lamb said the train station is currently running over capacity. When his department researched the southeastern transportation system, it found that Raleigh is the third most popular stop in the Southeast, behind Richmond and New Orleans. The downtown station, which doesn’t even have a loading platform, services more people per year than Charlotte, Miami and Atlanta.

Lamb said the results, though surprising, showed a strong need for a new, high-capacity station. The need is expected to keep growing. Last year, Forbes Magazine ranked Raleigh as the fastest growing city in the U.S.

“We want a train station that fits [current needs], but we also want to address our future growth needs,” Lamb said. “The planned station lays the groundwork for the future high speed rail service, and it also lays the groundwork for the potential for commuter rail service that will be provided by triangle transit.”

Mary Curtis, a junior in biological engineering, said improved logistics sounds like a good idea.

“I’m sure the current station is really old, and you can tell,” Curtis said. “I’m sure it would help them — at least get people on and off — to have a bigger station.”

Curtis, a Florida native, said she traveled by Amtrak train between Raleigh and Jacksonville, Fla., four times a year during her freshman and sophomore years.

“[The current station] is okay,” Curtis said. “It’s really small. My train went all the way down to Orlando, so there were always a lot of people riding it. The train station would get really crowded, especially if you had a lot of baggage.”

Curtis said her roommate always picked her up from the Raleigh station so she never had to worry about transportation to N.C. State. However, she thinks improved bus routes to the station will help some Raleigh travelers avoid pricey cab fees.

“If someone didn’t have someone they knew in Raleigh, they would probably have to call a cab, which can be kind of expensive,” Curtis said.

Curtis said delays also made it hard for people to travel once arriving in Raleigh.

“The train sometimes got delayed for four or five hours,” Curtis said. “It would come in much later than you thought you were going be there. It was nice for me that I had someone that was really flexible that could pick me up. I don’t know how most people who rode the train did it.”

Lamb said the new station will fix these types of problems.

“If I’m a student at N.C. State, this is going to provide me with better choices,” Lamb said. “Once you get here, [transportation] is going to be a better experience. It’s going to be more convenient. It’s going to be easier to use.”

However, Lamb said the current TIGER V grant money will only be used for the first phase of the multi-phase project, which entails the rebuilding of Union Station. The second phase will add additional parking and work to further integrate the Raleigh Capital Area Transit bus system.

“Phase one is not just the cornerstone of development,” Lamb said. “It’s really the first step.”

Lamb said the goal is to create a “signature station” for North Carolina’s capital city. One proposed idea is to utilize the event space on top of the station as an outdoor patio, which might be rented to businesses or for events.

Still, the end result depends on how much money is raised. The City of Raleigh committed $6 million to the project, and the North Carolina Department of Transportation committed $9 million. Lamb said currently — through a combination of city, state and federal funding — the City of Raleigh can afford to rebuild the current station.

However, his department is working on other options for additional funds. The goal is to raise at least $60 million, but Lamb said he prefers to raise closer to $73 million.

“The bottom though is we have enough money … that we can deliver a complete product of a working station with all of the track improvements,” Lamb said. “The question becomes if we can get more funds, then we can deliver a better product.”

Lamb said this “better product” is a station that mimics the functionality of Union Station in Washington D.C.

“We’re interested in making sure that the station is not just a station,” Lamb said. “We want it to be a very dynamic, useful facility.”

Lamb said that Hagan’s office, Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Rail Administration were instrumental in the process to get the TIGER V grant.

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