Nov 13, 2023 - Development

Is it worth the “tremendous risk” to move NCDOT’s South End train facility?

NCDOT Charlotte Passenger Railcar and Maintenance Facility

Photo: Alexandria Sands/Axios

Two decades ago, before South End exploded with growth, the state Department of Transportation chose a site along Summit Avenue for a 19-acre train maintenance facility — a place to do it all, from replacing parts to cleaning seats.

Today, that facility is slated for an expansion. It’s surrounded by homes and businesses. Situated between one existing and one future light rail station, the land has the market potential developers drool over.

  • The situation begs the question: Is relocating the facility worth it?

Why it matters: This is more than your typical NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) fight. The expansion of NCDOT’s Charlotte Passenger Rail Facility is a consequential planning decision broadly opposed in the South End and Wilmore neighborhoods. NCDOT wants to double the facility in size by 2028.

  • Opponents say the facility would halt growth anticipated to spur from the Silver Line and Iron District.
  • “Twenty years ago, it probably was the right location. But the way the city has grown has surprised everybody,” says Michael Gallis, an urban planning expert in Charlotte.

Yes, but: The rail facility impacts Uptown’s future, too. It would service the trains going through the Charlotte Gateway Station in Uptown. North Carolina is also making moves to expand its passenger rail service, which is experiencing historically high demand.

Relocating the facility would be a “tremendous risk,” the state’s rail division director Jason Orthner told community members Wednesday during NCDOT’s first stakeholder meeting on the expansion.

  • “NCDOT has determined that relocation of the facility is not feasible,” a document distributed to attendees plainly states.
  • “That said, we are still early in the development phase, and we are taking comments on location,” Orthner told attendees. “That is definitely something we want to hear from the community.”

NCDOT shared several reasons why that’s the case:

  • This location doesn’t conflict with freight railroads. North Carolina’s passenger trains largely run on private railroads. Agreements in place dictate where and when passenger trains can use the tracks.
  • NCDOT estimates it would take another decade and $100 million in infrastructure to access another location.
  • If NCDOT were to move the facility, the state would be on the hook to repay the federal government $52 million for the first phase of the facility, which was completed in 2018.

What they’re saying: While NCDOT has looked into technical considerations, it may be working in an engineering silo, Gallis, says. There are also economic, social and cultural impacts to consider.

“It’s a headache [to relocate]. And it’s gonna require a lot of changes, time, but it’s worth it,” Gallis says. “Had the city had more foresight, this could have been averted years ago.”

  • Charlotte Center City Partners — the organization behind South End’s vision — has never supported this location.
  • Opponents suggest NCDOT should look at how it can profit from selling the land.
The train facility is located in the Gold District, a pocket of South End with gold-mining history. Photo: Alexandria Sands/Axios

Zoom in: Several South End property owners suspect their land will be acquired through eminent domain, based on old NCDOT plans. They include Frothy Beard Brewing, a 1992 Penman Street building home to the Conroy family printing business, and the site of a future mixed-use development.

  • NCDOT maintains it hasn’t made any decisions about acquiring land but has started soil testing on adjacent properties. That’s how Mike Conroy says he found out about the plans over the summer.
  • If they acquire any buildings, NCDOT would need to compensate residents or businesses that are displaced, per the federal Uniform Relocation Act.

The big picture: NCDOT has a broader vision for rail. Right now, the Amtrak station on North Tryon is the busiest in the state, but it mainly exists to connect Charlotte to Raleigh. NCDOT is seeking federal funds through the bipartisan infrastructure bill for 12 new passenger rail routes, connecting to Asheville, Wilmington and beyond.

  • By 2027, NCDOT will receive new European trains to replace its 1960s equipment.
  • The Charlotte Gateway Station will replace the old North Tryon Street station. NCDOT finished its portion of the project in October 2022. The city is working with a developer to transform the area around it into a mixed-use destination. It’s unclear when that will be done, though.

What’s next: NCDOT will schedule more community meetings about the project. If necessary, it will acquire property for the expansion between 2024 and 2026. Construction would take place from 2026 to 2028.

[Go deeper: Massive rail facility would stifle South End’s growth, opponents say]

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