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CARTA plans new train, bus hub at historic Liberty Hill

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CARTA plans new train, bus hub at historic Liberty Hill

CARTA plans to transform the existing Amtrak station into a new facility which will serve passenger trains, local and regional buses, taxis and limousines.

In Liberty Hill, the biggest building around is the Royal Missionary Baptist Church where an Easter Week revival was underway.

Kids shot hoops in a parking lot. Men waited for haircuts in a building with its door opened to the brisk air.

The hustle and bustle of North Charleston wraps around the quiet neighborhood that takes its name from its legacy as a home to freed slaves. Rivers, East Montague and Gaynor avenues bound the enclave of black history.

The area's character is that of a village, but big-city change is knocking at the door. The decrepit Amtrak station at the industrial end of Gaynor is where CARTA plans a two-story, $14 million, 33,000-square-foot building to serve passenger trains, local and regional buses, taxis and limousines. In addition, CARTA plans to lease office, retail and restaurant space in the facility.

"It sounds like a good thing but what about the traffic in the street? It could be a mess," said Sammy Caesar, a resident who is a construction worker.

CARTA will build the new passenger center within 30 months, a timetable that is a condition for receiving $11.6 million in federal funding.

The rail line that serves Amtrak is a short stone's throw across Gaynor from the front door of the Liberty Hill Barbershop, which is squeezed between a florist and mortuary near East Montague. On the other side of the street, a drainage ditch with standing water separates the tracks from a sidewalk where young residents stroll.

"This road is too small for those big buses," said Kenyatta Nesbit, the barbershop owner.

Tina Wright, whose family owns the florist shop, said Gaynor already has a bunch of traffic, including the big trucks. "Not down this street. This is a residential street," she said.

A new entrance

CARTA officials said they will provide primary access for the new transportation hub from Rivers Avenue.

A traffic study of the project and its potential effect on Liberty Hill is planned. Numerous traffic management solutions will be considered.

"Ultimately, safety is paramount for CARTA, not only for its passengers but also for those who work and live in the vicinity of our vehicles and facilities," said CARTA spokesman Daniel Brock.

"The intermodal facility is a neighborhood improvement in many respects, certainly at the existing Amtrak site, and we believe it can act as a catalyst for a neighborhood revitalization," Brock said in an e-mail.

The station will be world-class and a Charleston landmark, Brock said. The CARTA board and staff are very mindful of the cultural heritage associated with the Liberty Hill neighborhood. That history will be celebrated with a museum and other elements at the station, he said.

A series of public meetings beginning next month will be held during the year to share information on the project and gather resident feedback, he said.

"That's when the project really starts. These folks are going to be our neighbors, and they'll have a say in how we move forward," CARTA Board Chairman Elliott Summey said in an e-mail. "We want to be part of the neighborhood, an added benefit, and the intermodal facility is going to have a lot to offer in terms of public use and programming."

The date of the first public meeting about the new passenger station has not been announced.

Finding a new home

For years, CARTA planned to locate its Intermodal Transportation Center on West Montague Avenue not far from North Charleston Coliseum. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded a $6 million grant for the project.

Millions of dollars, mostly from federal grants, were spent buying and improving the 36-acre tract, which was 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 and a large parking area.

However, CARTA sought to move the project from West Montague because of concerns about whether putting the Amtrak stop there would block rail traffic at CSX's nearby Bennett Yard.

A year ago, CARTA planned to announce at a board meeting that it was buying the Amtrak station as a new site for the passenger transportation hub. But the deal fell through only minutes before the meeting because of objections from the U.S. Federal Transit Administration.

Under the terms of a subsequent agreement, 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. Toward that end, CARTA 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 a CARTA memo.

The West Montague property has been valued at $4.7 million. CARTA said it was seeking a new appraisal.

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.

Reach Prentiss Findlay at 937-5711

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