Has intermodal center jumped the rails?
More than 15 years ago, North Charleston’s leaders envisioned a new Amtrak station not only serving rail passengers, but also linking them with Greyhound and CARTA buses, taxis, possibly even shuttles to the airport.
Millions of dollars, mostly from federal grants, were spent buying and improving a 36-acre tract on West Montague Avenue.
But the completion of the Lowcountry’s new intermodal center remains a distant dream, with major questions surrounding not only its financing but also its feasibility at the current site.
At issue now is whether Amtrak trains stopping at the new station would block rail traffic at CSX’s nearby Bennett Yard.
Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority Chairman Elliott Summey said that issue surfaced about six months ago, but he expressed confidence that it can be overcome.
“We’re working through it,” he said. “As soon as we know something, we’ll let everybody else know.”
The current Amtrak station on Gaynor Avenue might be the Lowcountry’s least appealing entrance.
The brick station looks stuck in the 1950s, and its tough-to-find location and chain-link landscaping are among the reasons that the city of North Charleston began planning a new transportation center in the first place.
The center first made news in 1997, and North Charleston had hoped to break ground as early as 1999.
The project eventually was handed over to the newly created CARTA, which found a site near where West Montague Avenue, Dorchester Road and Interstate 526 intertwine. It’s located about a mile south and west of where Amtrak trains currently stop.
The old mobile homes, vacant buildings and acres of shipping containers were moved, replaced with new palmetto trees, a towering spray fountain, new infrastructure and a large parking area.
CARTA hired the engineering and architecture firm Davis & Floyd Inc. to design the center, and its initial scheme includes a three-story building that recalls the nation’s grand train stations, particularly Union Station, a former Charleston landmark on Morrison Drive that burned down decades ago.
But CARTA still needs about $6 million, Summey said.
“Our biggest issue is a lack of money,” he said. “The story is still the same: We don’t have enough money to build it yet.”
Still, the story has a new wrinkle, and money is no longer the only issue.
Summey’s father, North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey, said he understands that the CSX conflict might render the proposed intermodal site unworkable.
“My concern is we get a very nice intermodal facility,” he said. “Where it’s located, whether it’s there or somewhere else, I’m fine with as long as it has public access and it’s something we can be proud of as a community.”
Mayor Summey had hoped to use federal stimulus money to build the center in 2009, but Charleston Mayor Joe Riley persuaded CARTA members to use the $6 million to upgrade an aging bus fleet.
Elliott Summey said CARTA originally thought the Amtrak train could sit on the main line, as it does at Gaynor Avenue, but now CSX wants it off on its own spur. It’s unclear how much building that spur would add to the price tag, or if there’s another solution. He called CSX “a good partner.”
In response to questions from The Post and Courier, CSX released a statement this week saying it is “actively involved” in discussions with Amtrak and CARTA about the intermodal site.
“CSX carefully considers safety and efficiency, along with other factors, when evaluating these types of proposals,” it said. “We’ve had productive discussions with CARTA and Amtrak regarding this project and look forward to continuing those discussions as this project evolves.”
North Charleston City Councilman Bob King said the new twist hurts the credibility of CARTA and the city because they have been talking up the project for years. “I’m very disappointed in that,” he said. “This should be have been checked out.”
Elliott Summey said the damage to New York’s train and subway lines from Hurricane Sandy means there was unlikely to be federal dollars this year to start work on the project.
Meanwhile, the mayor said he hopes some solution will emerge eventually that will allow the project to get back on track.
“I would like to see it come about in my lifetime,” Mayor Summey said.
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.