Harrisburg commuters tired of sitting in traffic on Interstates 85 and 77, or zigzagging their way on congested side roads within the Interstate 485 loop, will soon have another option to reach Charlotte – possibly as early as 2021.
The Harrisburg Town Council unanimously approved an unprecedented agreement with the North Carolina Railroad (NCRR) earlier this month in which the state-owned entity will spend up to $6 million to construct a new passenger train station along the south side of Route 49 in the town. Work on the station is expected to begin sometime next year, and take between 12 and 18 months to complete.
As part of an accord that was first discussed in 2012, and in earnest since 2015, the town will invest $1.75 million in the project.
Of those funds, $1.39 million will reimburse the NCRR for the 2.3-acre vacant lot it recently acquired for the 4,000-square-foot train station. The land sits just north of the Shell gas station, next door to a future car wash, and across the road from the Town Center.
The remaining town contribution will go toward the construction of a 2,000- to 2,500-square-foot building adjoining the station that, when completed, will serve as the new headquarters of the Harrisburg Division of the Cabarrus County Sheriff’s Department. Presently, those 15 officers must share approximately 200 square feet of office space at the Harrisburg Fire Department’s main headquarters off Morehead Road.
In addition to offering another option for those commuting to Charlotte, the new station will provide convenient access for Amtrak passenger train riders looking to travel to Raleigh, and as far north as New York City. That’s because the new station will be part of the NCRR’s Piedmont route, which runs between Charlotte and the state capital, and also connect with the NCRR’s Carolinian line that runs from Charlotte to New York City, making stops in Richmond, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
The new station will not be part of the Lynx Blue Line light rail that, at the present time, runs from University City to south Charlotte.
‘A Now Or Never Proposition’
So, why now?
The NCRR first approached the town several years earlier to push for the construction of a new passenger train station in Harrisburg. Those preliminary discussions did not advance because, back then, the NCRR was looking for the town to pay for most of the station, according to Town Councilman Troy Selberg.
But as development continued in Harrisburg, and the number of properties running adjacent to the tracks started to dry up, those discussions began to take on a different tone, with the NCRR eventually agreeing to finance the bulk of the project’s funding.
Town officials said it was an unprecedented move by the NCRR, and emphasizes Harrisburg’s importance to it now and down the road.
“NCRR has never funded the construction of a passenger rail station in the state,” said Harrisburg Town Manager Haynes Brigman, underscoring the significance of the agreement.
NCRR representatives did not return an email seeking confirmation of that statement.
In a prepared statement, NCRR President Scott Saylor said his company has been trying for years to open a station in Harrisburg, pointing to the ongoing development and growing population in southern Cabarrus County.
Mr. Brigman said the NCRR, as well as the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s Rail Division, have made building a train station in Harrisburg its top priority in recent years, pointing to the town’s growing population and nearby attractions, including University City and the Charlotte Motor Speedway. Presently, the two closest train stations along the line are in Kannapolis to the north and Charlotte to the south.
Harrisburg’s population totaled slightly more than 16,000 as per a July 2018 estimation by the U.S. Census Bureau (www.census.gov/quickfacts/harrisburgtownnorthcarolina). As of April 2010, the town’s population stood at 11,526.
Mr. Brigman also offered that time was of the essence for the Town Council as the land in question – which is actually three properties with two different owners – was being actively shopped around on the open market, making the town’s decision to acquire it for a train station “a now or never proposition.”
An Almost Immediate Benefit
As part of their discussions with the NCRR, town officials made the inclusion of the new law enforcement substation a non-negotiable part of any agreement. They have estimated that building a new police substation on their own would have cost the town several million dollars.
In addition to addressing an immediate need for the town – a lack of space for the sheriffs patrolling Harrisburg – the police substation will address concerns typically affiliated with train stations, including the potential for crime, loitering, and attracting the homeless.
“We’re spending around $1.5 million and, in return, receiving a $9 million to $10 million asset,” Mr. Selberg said. “It is a great deal for the town.”
That point was driven home by Mr. Brigman.
“Early conversations with NCRR were not as favorable to the town from a financial perspective, as some of the original proposals required the town to participate in the construction costs of the train station,” he said.
“Ultimately, the town was able to reach more favorable financial terms with NCRR that required no public money for the train station construction, and the joint use of the facility with our law enforcement division provided the necessary justification for the use of town funds,” Mr. Brigman continued.
The Town’s Stake
As part of the public-private partnership, the town must reimburse the NCRR for the train station property, which was appraised at $1.55 million, and completely fund the construction of the law enforcement building, which is expected to run between $350,000 and $400,000. In turn, the NCRR will assume all costs of designing and building the train station and platform, as well as installing the required tracks.
The town is funding its $1.75 million share by tapping its Capital Reserve Fund, which is used to help supplement or pay for capital expense projects, and its Fund Balance Reserve, commonly referred to as a “rainy day fund” and used to help pay for unexpected emergency expenditures, according to Mr. Brigman.
Therefore, the allocation will not result in a tax increase, he added.
Mr. Brigman explained that the town adopted a 10-year Capital Plan in 2018 to help estimate costs and spread out the town’s financing of more expensive capital projects. He added that the plan has been extremely helpful in prioritizing projects, and recognizing unexpected opportunities, such as the train station, when they present themselves.
“Due to other planned capital projects coming in under budget, and general operational savings of the town, the town has the available resources to move forward with the train station project without impacting the 10-year Capital plan or causing the need for a tax increase,” Mr. Brigman said.
Within 60 days of completing the project, the NCRR is required to turn over ownership of the land, the train station, and the law enforcement building to the town, which will be responsible for maintaining them moving forward.
Town officials said they are not overly concerned with those future upkeep costs, explaining that the station will feature automated ticket booths. They also noted that the maintenance requirements should be fairly routine, and include the replacement of lightbulbs and general cleaning, for the first several years.
A 2015 study completed by the NCRR projected that the new Harrisburg station could start out by attracting between 10 and 30 riders a day, similar numbers to the one that was built in Cary, North Carolina, about two decades earlier.
In 2018, more than 81,500 Amtrak passengers made their way through the Cary station, with the top three destinations being Charlotte, Greensboro, and Washington D.C., according to the Rail Passengers Association, a rail passenger advocacy organization (www.railpassengers.org/site/assets/files/1794/cyn.pdf).
“It is part of NCRR’s mission to enable rail to move people, and NCRR is prioritizing this opportunity for a public-private partnership between the Town of Harrisburg and NCRR to establish a future intercity passenger station that will be integral for improving ways of moving people in the rapidly growing region,” Mr. Saylor said in the same statement.
Work on the new Harrisburg train station, which is not expected to begin until next year, will occur as construction advances on the new Gateway Station in Charlotte. In addition to Amtrak services, that “multimodal” transportation hub – the first phase alone is expected to cost tens of millions of dollars, according to published reports – will consolidate the city’s busing and light rail facilities. Ground was broken on that project last year, and work is expected to take several years.
Still, that ambitous project points to the region’s growing reliance on rail transportation and, for Mr. Selberg, supports Harrisburg’s investment in a new train station, even if the facility does not start paying huge dividends – at least in terms of ridership – immediately out of the gate.
“It is like planting the seed of a tree, the shade of which you might not get to enjoy right away,” Mr. Selberg said.
Mr. Brigman agrees, noting that those with established businesses in the town, as well as those companies thinking about relocating here, should welcome a passenger train station. Easily accessible public transportation, one that connects Harrisburg with large cities in North Carolina and others along the East Coast, could be used as a recruitment tool by business owners looking to attract employees, he said.
“The long-term impact of the partnership is potential economic development opportunities that may be initiated by having access to passenger rail,” Mr. Brigman said, pointing to then future buildout of Town Center, and development opportunities west of Morehead Road.
And even if ridership is slow to take off, Mr. Selberg and other town officials stress that an immediate benefit of the work will be the addition of a brand new police substation — at a fraction of the price it would have cost the town to build on its own.
“The ability to appropriately address the office space needs of our deputies is reason enough to move forward with the project, but adding in the other potential benefits, and the fact that the town will take ownership of the property and facility at completion, make this a very attractive financial decision for the town,” Mr. Brigman said.