City council takes first step toward restoring rail service to Winston-Salem

by Keith Barber

Formerly the site of Union Station, Davis Garage will be acquired by the city of Winston-Salem in the next 30 days to be rehabilitated as a multi-modal transportati’on facility. (photo by Keith T. Barber)

The Winston-Salem City Council confirmed its commitment to acquire Davis Garage — formerly the site of Union Station, which once served as the city’s passenger train station, — for the purpose of constructing a multi-modal transportation center during its regular meeting on Sept. 20.

The council turned down a proposal by Union Station Restorations — a development company composed of Bill Cannon, Chris Frantz, Brian Wishoff, Eric Wishoff and Rence Callahan — for a public-private partnership to help fund the transformation of Davis Garage back into Union Station.

Denise C. Bell, the city’s chief financial officer, said the company’s proposal raised a number of concerns, including a requirement for the city put up $9.1 million through loans or state grants. In a memo to council members, Bell noted that only a $2.4 million federal grant had been approved for the restoration of Union Station and the remaining $6.7 million would not be available through grants or city funding.

“They didn’t have a proposal in which the numbers added up to pay for itself,” city council member Dan Besse said. “If they had come forward with a proposal where the numbers worked, then we would’ve seriously considered it.”

The council resolved to give property owner Harvey Davis 30 days to negotiate a price for the property located just off Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard in east Winston-Salem. If a deal cannot be reached, the council has instructed city staff to acquire the property by eminent domain.

Besse said it’s important to place the council’s actions in their proper context.

“Folks need to keep in mind, this isn’t the first attempt to purchase the property; the process has been going on for five years,” Besse said. “In fact, this isn’t the first private development effort, so this isn’t coming out of the blue. This isn’t a surprise to Mr. Davis or anyone else who’s been paying attention. Very serious efforts have been made to make a deal.”

If the city invokes the power of eminent domain, Davis will receive a fair market value for his property, Besse said. If Davis is not satisfied with the offer, he can appeal the decision in court.

The city council’s decision represents the first concrete step toward restoring passenger rail service to Winston-Salem. Union Station was constructed in 1926 to serve passengers on the Southern, Norfolk and Western, and Winston-Salem Southbound Railroads lines, according to the city’s environmental assessment of the project. In 1947, Union Station reached its peak with 18 trains arriving and departing daily from the station bringing more than 500 passengers from Greensboro Charlotte and Asheville. The station closed in 1970 and was later sold to Davis, who converted it to an auto garage in 1975.

Thirty-five years later, the rehabilitation of Union Station has become “critical to the long-term economic health of our region,” Besse said.

Besse cited Charlotte’s light-rail service as a model for Winston- Salem’s endeavor.

“That one 10-mile light-rail line [in downtown Charlotte] has already added $1.8 billion in development around that line and around its stops,” Besse said. “One thing critics tend to ignore is that rail development more than pays for itself in economic development it spurs around the rail line and especially the rail stops.”

Light rail does indeed have its critics. Sherry Jarrell, a professor of economics

and finance at Wake Forest University, said historically speaking, transportation infrastructure projects do not pay for themselves and the city of Winston-Salem could spend public dollars more wisely.

“It may work out but most public transportation projects are grossly in the red, are having to be supported and propped up by the government, and are wasting economic resources, not saving them,” Jarrell said.

One of the benefits of light rail is getting vehicles off the road and reducing greenhousegas emissions, and there is great value in that, Jarrell acknowledged. However, for light rail to be successful, people have to get out of their cars and actually utilize the service.

“We could put a dollar sign on this project that includes an assessment of the environmental impact and I can guarantee you the overall impact on the community is not going to be positive,” Jarrell said. “The politicians put this very large implicit dollar value on the environmental impact but if people don’t use it, it’s all cost and no benefit; it’s wishful thinking. What are they going to do? Force people to use it?” Elected officials are responsible for the welfare of the people, and welfare is often measured in economic terms, and light rail does little to improve the lives of citizens, Jarrell said.

“I’m worried it’s a feel-good [initiative],” Jarrell said. “If you scratch the surface, you’ll see that these dollars could be spent much more wisely, and have more of an environmental impact.”

Besse said the move back to rail transit is inevitable, and it would behoove Winston- Salem to stay ahead of the curve.

“Winston-Salem is the biggest city in North Carolina that doesn’t have passenger rail service available,” Besse said. “That’s very bad for us environmentally and very bad for us economically if we don’t tie in effectively tot he renewal of rail transit.”

Brent McKinney has a very unique perspective on the rehabilitation of Union Station, and he disagrees with Jarrell’s theory about citizens’ interest in public transportation.

McKinney, the executive director of Piedmont Area Regional Transportation, said the increased demand for public transportation in Winston-Salem is evident on a daily basis.

“The Liberty Street terminal is now overcrowded,” McKinney said. “There are 16 bays at the downtown transportation center and every afternoon, we have to load the PART bus in the street because those 16 bays are full. Let’s get [Union Station] back into service — we have a need for it now.”

McKinney said he would like to pull as many routes out of downtown Winston-Salem, and bring them to Union Station. That would bring PART buses into a terminal where they could have a good connection to downtown, and create a strong feeder system to Greensboro.

“This is an anchor point and it allows us to take another step toward passenger rail service — it’s the future of Winston-Salem’s transportation plan,” McKinney said.

McKinney said the benefits of public transportation come in the form of cost savings, enhanced safety and a reduction of greenhouse gases.

“People are spending $9,000 a year to operate one vehicle,” he said. “We’ve been caught up building interstates and haven’t given people a choice. We have choices for everything we do in this country except how we travel. Wouldn’t you think that the most developed country in the world could provide more than one way to travel?

“We saved our riders $1.2 million last year in fuel they didn’t have to purchase,” McKinney continued. “That money they saved is in their pockets — they’re going out to eat; making improvements to their home and sending their kids to college.”

Giving the public transportation options will bring new riders, which will cut fuel consumption and reduce the number of vehicles on the road. That, in turn, will result in fewer accidents and traffic fatalities, McKinney said. In the 10-county area served by PART, McKinney said annually there are more than 37,000 traffic accidents resulting in more than 20,000 injuries and 239 traffic fatalities.

PART has provided service to the area for the past eight years with bus routes originally servicing Winston-Salem, Greensboro and High Point. In 2006, PART expanded its service to encompass a 10-county area. Still, there is much room for growth.

“We’re just beginning to get started and we’re already showing significant benefits to the public,” McKinney said.

Besse cited national estimates that the average family that depends on its car spends 20 to 25 percent of its income on transportation annually, where as a family with good access to public transportation spends less than 10 percent on transportation.

A lack of transportation options also leads to urban sprawl, which eats up farmland and green space while adding to stormwater runoff, water pollution and air pollution, Besse said.

And historically speaking, transportation infrastructure projects give a boost to the neighborhoods they serve. That means Winston-Salem State University should receive an economic shot in the arm from the restoration of Union Station.

Jeff Miller, a local supporter of light rail, believes restoring passenger rail service to Winston-Salem will create a significant ripple effect that will lead to increased economic growth and a greener, more livable city.

“It puts Winston-Salem on a map that it’s not on now,” Miller said.

With the renovation of Union Station, Winston-Salem can make a bid to join the Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor, Miller added.

The city has a progressive history when it comes to transportation innovation. Winston- Salem was the third city in the US to have streetcars; in 1910, the system boasted 9 million riders a year. Thomas Edison once paid a visit to Winston to help develop the trolley system, Miller said.

“Having a rail system will be very important to how are lives are shaped,” Miller continued. “It will open up neighborhoods — people will opt to live in neighborhoods with access to commuter rail. It will make the areas more desirable for people to live in.”

The entire country is returning to rail service and the Twin City better hop on board soon, Besse said.

“So what’s really at stake here for Winston- Salem and Forsyth residents is whether we’re going to benefit from the renaissance in rail transit, or are we going to be left out of the picture again?” Besse said. “The long-term livability and economic vitality of the Triad is at stake.”