“It is no secret that I have questions about the whole project.”
— Council member Joe Dunn
An initiative designed to link Asheville to an evolving statewide rail network roared into City Council’s Feb. 17 work session, but unanswered questions and concerns about the plan’s viability prompted Council members to creep ahead cautiously rather than advance at full throttle. After a lengthy Q-and-A session, Council appeared ready to commit $9,600 for a study to determine the feasibility of the favored site for a passenger-rail station. But a request that the city kick in more than $141,000 to help acquire the property in question got derailed pending further study.
The site was hand-picked by a city task force working with the state Department of Transportation; the transit study, a prerequisite for securing federal funds, would determine whether the site could function as a multi-modal transportation hub that would link the rail line with the cityis mass-transit system. The proposed station would be located at the edge of Biltmore Village, where Sweeten Creek Road (Highway 25A) meets the train tracks. After studying the site, the DOT felt confident enough to take out an option to purchase two properties, putting down $141,883 of its own funds as earnest money. But a required agreement that would make the city a partner in the venture caused some Council members to balk.
“It is no secret that I have questions about the whole project,” said Council member Joe Dunn, who appeared skeptical throughout the 90-minute discussion.
And for the most part, Dunn’s questions — which covered topics ranging from the passenger line’s overall prospects to the amount of operating funds for which the city would be responsible — remained unanswered. Through it all, David Bender, the project manager for the DOT’s Rail Division, maintained a staunch enthusiasm, though he admitted that as an engineer, he was ill-equipped to answer many of the questions posed by Council — which covered just about everything except engineering.
To begin with, Dunn insisted on seeing evidence that a city the size of Asheville could support rail service. Bender, meanwhile, argued that the project would gradually attract more passengers, predicting, “As we establish the market, ridership increases.” To back up that assertion, he cited a 2001 DOT report projecting that a substantial number of people would use the train to travel and from Asheville. (For details, Bender referred Council members to the DOT Rail Division’s Web site: bytrain.org.) He also reported that Western North Carolina tops Amtrak’s list of requested destinations that are presently unavailable.
Pressed by Dunn, however, Bender was unable to guarantee that the operating costs wouldn’t exceed DOT projections.
But Bender did supply Council with information about the success of passenger-rail service in North Carolina and other states. The Raleigh-Charlotte line, he said, has already paid back its $19 million cost and now makes $600,000 annually. Bender also emphasized that state residents are using the existing service not only for travel between North Carolina cities, but also to access Northeast Corridor cities such as Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and Boston. That additional demand, he stressed, helps put such projects in the black.
Dunn, however, wasn’t the only person around the table who seemed uncomfortable with the unanswered questions. “We’re mostly ‘maybe’ up here,” observed Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower, adding, “We’re not really sure where to go.”
And Council member Holly Jones asked Bender to explain, at the philosophical level, why the DOT had decided to expand into rail travel in the first place.
But once again, Bender wasn’t biting. “As a technician, it is not my place to be philosophical,” he replied. Instead, Bender cited a mandate by the North Carolina General Assembly in 2000 that the DOT explore rail service. That mandate, argued Bender, means that there’s sufficient public outcry for passenger-train travel in Western North Carolina.
Unwilling to let the discussion focus solely on financial considerations, Jones briefly observed that such alternative modes of transportation fit nicely with environmental and security concerns. And Economic Development Director Mac Williams maintained that building a train station would spur development, increase property values and boost tourism revenues. His written report to Council also outlines such potential benefits as getting buildings restored for a fraction of what it would otherwise cost the city. As an example, Williams pointed to the growth of Salisbury, N.C. — the western terminus of the state’s existing passenger-rail service and a likely transfer point for passengers traveling between Asheville and Raleigh — calling the Salisbury depot an activity magnet.”
But Dunn, sounding unconvinced, merely noted glumly that there used to be a passenger-rail station in Asheville.
And as Bender urged the city to take the next steps to bring passenger rail to Asheville, both Dunn and Mumpower wondered what would happen if Council delayed making a decision. The state’s option on one portion of the property expires Dec. 31, said Bender, and negotiations are under way to extend the deadline on another parcel to the same date. After that, he said, the options would expire and the properties would probably go back on the market. That appeared to give the city a fair amount of breathing room. But in order to secure $3 million in transportation funds held by the state, a request would have to be made before the General Assembly’s short session ends in May. Asheville, said Bender, needs to “demonstrate a firm local commitment” to help make that happen.
Wanting further details, however, Mumpower suggested that the vote on the municipal agreement be tabled for a month, giving Council members time to do some research of their own — including, he said, conversations with legislators in Raleigh. Once that was decided, Council was comfortable enough with the transit study, at least, to put the $9,600 budget amendment on the consent agenda for the Feb. 24 formal session.
Even after the lengthy rail discussion, however, Williams’ work for the evening wasn’t done. Returning to the lectern, the city’s economic-development director unveiled the prototype of a slick new online resource for developers seeking information on city-owned property that might be available for their projects. Williams asked Council to approve $20,000 to have the Web site — now only a mockup — coded and fired up. “This is an attempt to create a tax base,” he proclaimed before having city staffer Tim Minter, a GIS expert, crank up the presentation.
The Web site, which would begin by displaying a map of Asheville, would enable developers to zero in on specific areas of town. Users could then view real-time photos of individual parcels, get the actual measurements, and even access the city land-records database and census info to determine the demographics of the surrounding area. The project, argued Williams, would help streamline the whole development process.
But Council member Terry Bellamy, while expressing qualified support for the idea, also voiced some reservations. Specifically, she wanted to be sure that zoning and public-input procedures wouldn’t fall by the wayside and that the project wouldn’t undercut the city’s ability to pursue its own vision for growth.
Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford assured Bellamy that the intention is to promote properties that Council wants to see developed. Shuford also noted that the Web site would be designed with the help of focus groups to make sure it meets users’ needs.
[Freelance writer Brian Postelle is a regular contributor to Xpress.]