CARTA plan to buy Amtrak station derailed

Metro The old Amtrak Station, on Gaynor Avenue in North Charleston, was built in 1956 and is schedule to close when the new Intermodal Center is built on West Montague Ave. The Amtrak Station Revitalization Project Team will hold meetings for public input for the future of the structure. (Brad Nettles/postandcourier.com) 8/24/11 ¬ ¬ ¬ Published Caption 8/29/2011: The old Amtrak Station, on Gaynor Avenue in North Charleston, was built in 1956 and is scheduled to close when a new Intermodal Center is built on West Montague Avenue. The Amtrak Station Revitalization Project Team will hold meetings for input on the structure's future. Buy this photo

CARTA planned to announce Thursday that it was buying the Amtrak station to create a new hub for local and regional buses, trains, limousines and taxis.

But the deal fell through only minutes before the Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority board meeting because of objections from the Federal Transit Administration, Board Chairman Elliott Summey said.

“You can imagine how angry I am. This wasn’t the way I wanted it to go down. The board was ready to go and they pulled the plug on it,” he said.

At issue is the future of a long-envisioned transportation center to replace the dingy inter-city bus station on Dorchester Road and the aging Amtrak station on Gaynor Avenue. The new facility, known as the Intermodal Transportation Center, has been in the works for more than a decade.

If the deal had gone through Thursday, it would have meant selling the current 36-acre Intermodal Center project site on West Montague Avenue and applying those funds toward the purchase of the train station in the Liberty Hill neighborhood, Summey said.

Six months ago, a glitch arose with the Intermodal Center site on West Montague because of concerns about whether putting the Amtrak stop there would block rail traffic at CSX’s nearby Bennett Yard. Summey said that issue would have been resolved by putting the transportation center at the existing Amtrak station.

CARTA planned to use $4.7 million from the sale of the West Montague property toward the purchase of the Amtrak station.

But now the FTA has said it does not know how much of that money CARTA can keep, Summey said.

CARTA planned to contribute $2 million for the purchase of the train station, he said.

On Thursday, the CARTA board met in a closed-door executive session. Afterward, Summey discussed the latest developments in an interview. Summey said he wasted 18 months of his life pushing the deal, only to see it blocked at the last minute by the FTA.

“We thought we had something worked out,” he said.

FTA spokeswoman Amy Bernstein said the agency was researching the situation and would have a statement on it today.

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded a $6 million grant for the Intermodal Center. At that time, officials said the federal funds secured the center’s future.

Summey said he would go to Washington, D.C., to discuss the latest developments with U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, both South Carolina Republicans.

Summey noted that the Liberty Hill area would benefit from urban renewal and jobs that the new Intermodal Center would create.

He said that CARTA had lined up a buyer for the West Montague property. Charleston County wanted 15 acres of it for its recycling operation, he said, adding that some of it would be used for growth at North Charleston Coliseum.

CARTA Executive Director Christine Wilkinson said, “We’re going to continue to work with FTA to find a solution. The board is very invested in the project, and they’re going to do everything they can to find a solution.”

The West Montague site has been extensively landscaped. Old mobile homes, vacant buildings and acres of shipping containers were moved from it and replaced with new palmetto trees, a towering spray fountain, new infrastructure and a large parking area.

Millions of dollars, mostly from federal grants, were spent buying and improving the tract for the Intermodal Center, a planned three-story building designed to recall the nation’s grand train stations, particularly Union Station, a former Charleston landmark on Morrison Drive that burned decades ago.

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