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CARTA votes to buy Amtrak station for new passenger bus and train hub

CARTA will buy the Amtrak station in North Charleston and build a new bus and train hub there as part of a $14.6 million project that was resurrected Wednesday in a unanimous board vote.

The effort includes a 32,000 square-foot building that will be a center for local and regional buses as well as passenger rail, taxi and shuttle service. It is envisioned as a way to help revitalize the Liberty Hill neighborhood.

As part of the deal, the Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority will reimburse the U.S. Federal Transit Administration more than $3 million, according to a memo distributed to board members.

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

No decision has been made on whether to tear down the Amtrak station, which was built in the 1950s, or incorporate it in some way within the design of the new center, said CARTA Chairman Elliott Summey.

The board vote means the passenger transportation center will move from a 36-acre site on West Montague Avenue that has been extensively landscaped. Old mobile homes, vacant buildings and acres of shipping containers were moved from it and replaced with 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.

CARTA can sell the West Montague property and move forward with the Amtrak station project but it must re-pay the FTA nearly $3.7 million dollars. The agency prefers not to receive cash, but it will accept a reduction in future federal funding of $538,972 per year for five years and the return of a $1 million grant for new buses, according to the memo from CARTA Executive Director Christine Wilkinson.

Summey said the $1 million grant was received in 2009 but CARTA has not been able to come up with the matching funds needed before it can be used. The West Montague property is currently appraised at $4.7 million. It will be re-appraised and its value will help defray the loss of federal funding.

Board member Patterson Smith raised concerns about losing the federal funds.

“Additional buses moving forward are desperately needed,” he said.

Board member Teddie Pryor said residents of Liberty Hill will be concerned about changes to their neighborhood that the project will bring. It will include 6,600-square-feet of retail space. CARTA administrative offices will be located there, according to a consultant.

CARTA will use current grant funds, proceeds from the sale of the West Montague property and local funds to complete the new project at the Amtrak station, the memo states. Some $2.8 million in local matching funds are needed. Charleston County will provide $1.7 million, and $1.1 million will be secured from other sources, Summey said.

“We got a deal on the table from the FTA. It’s the best chicken salad we can make,” he said.

The current owner of the Amtrak station, CSX, has assured Summey by letter that it is willing to sell the site, he said.

Five months ago, CARTA planned to announce at a board meeting that it was buying the Amtrak station to build the passenger transportation hub. But the deal fell through only minutes before a CARTA board meeting because of objections from the FTA.

Before that, 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. That issue will be resolved by putting the transportation center at the Amtrak station, officials said.

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded a $6 million grant for the Intermodal Center.

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