UD: Expanded rail station key to STAR campus

Initial development of the University of Delaware’s STAR Campus will focus on the area between the College of Health Sciences building and a future expansion of the Newark train station, seen through the lobby area. (Photo: SUCHAT PEDERSON/THE NEWS JOURNAL )

The University of Delaware plans to pattern the first phase of its emerging research and development campus after an urban grid, centered around an expanded Newark train station with enhanced passenger rail service on the Northeast Corridor.

UD officials on Wednesday revealed a draft of its master plan for the northeast corner of its 272-acre Science Technology & Advanced Research Campus – land occupied by a massive auto-manufacturing plant until 2009. The draft builds on initial plans from 2011.

“We see the opportunity for not only research and office functions there but retail, in particular because the train station is there,” said Alan Brangman, UD’s vice president for facilities, real estate and auxiliary services.

Construction of the Newark Regional Transportation Center off South College Avenue was expected to start by this fall, after the plans won a competitive $10-million federal transit grant in 2012.

Progress on the $35 million project stalled over the last year as negotiations dragged on between the state and the railroad, Norfolk Southern Corp. Norfolk Southern has a busy freight yard next to the STAR Campus, and is concerned how the train station would affect its operations.

“We’ve been delayed about a year, and that’s been worked into our plan,” Brangman said. “Everyone’s still at the table, and we’re working toward getting a potential solution.”

Norfolk Southern declined to discuss the train station proposal at this stage because it’s “not the appropriate time,” spokesman David Pidgeon said Wednesday by email.

In September, Norfolk Southern President and CEO Charles W. “Wick” Moorman visited Newark and toured the site with U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, Gov. Jack Markell and Transportation Secretary Shailen Bhatt, Bhatt said.

“He instructed his folks to get the engineers together to come up with a plan that allows the freight movements that they need in order to maintain their business,” Bhatt said.

The Newark yard has become a key property in Norfolk Southern’s network since early 2013 when the railroad began ramping up crude oil deliveries to the Delaware City Refinery.

Crude-by-rail deliveries to Delaware are averaging 130,000 barrels a day, according to refinery owner PBF Energy. The Newark yard is along Norfolk Southern’s busiest rail route to the refinery.

Bhatt said state officials have worked hard to come up with a model that meets everyone’s needs, but funding is a major constraint. He expects to see a new offer from Norfolk Southern as early as Thursday, he said.

The urgency of reaching a solution increases by the day: Delaware could lose its federal grant if the project isn’t complete by a deadline in 2018. That’s a concern considering the amount of engineering to be done and permits to be secured, Bhatt said.

“We’re really running up against that schedule,” Bhatt said. “We don’t want to get into a situation where we’ve expended federal funds, the station doesn’t happen, and then for some reason the feds come back and say, ‘Uh, we don’t have a station, and we need our money back.'”

Bhatt added he hopes it doesn’t come to that, but “if we can’t come up with a design that works for [Norfolk Southern] and is not cost prohibitive, then we are where we are.”

Amtrak has also imposed a deadline requiring the Newark station be accessible to wheelchair users by 2018 “or its trains will no longer stop in Newark,” Brangman said. The requirement is part of a Federal Rail Administration initiative to improve accessibility at all Amtrak stations.

A major goal of redeveloping the station is to allow for more frequent Amtrak and SEPTA commuter rail service in Newark in part by adding high-level platforms and a pedestrian bridge for passengers to reach them. The project also aims to reduce conflicts between freight and commuter trains that cause a train-stacking bottleneck at Newark.

Transportation officials also want to link the SEPTA and MARC commuter lines in Newark. The lines are now separated by an 18-mile gap between Perryville, Md., and Newark.

“Newark’s not getting any smaller. The idea that we don’t have connective rail service with Maryland is ridiculous,” said Dave Gula, a transportation planner with the Wilmington Area Planning Council. “To make that happen, we have to have an upgraded Newark station.”

Economic engine

Officials hope the rail and transit center would act as a catalyst for economic-development opportunities and boost Delaware’s attempts to draw business from the growing military operations at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County, Maryland.

A new street, Station Boulevard, would be built as one of the main entrances to the STAR Campus from College Avenue. The boulevard would serve as the primary means for accessing the station, and as the primary commercial street on the campus.

“The first 20 years will probably see more like a million square feet of development on those 65 acres. We see as many as 10 to 12 buildings in what is that initial build-out for the site,” Brangman said. “We really want to focus on the distance between the train station and the Health Sciences Building.”

He described a mix of hotel, research, residential uses and a conference center in that area.

“This site is really to provide an opportunity for researchers, students for partners on this site to collaborate, and the only way to collaborate is to literally being in buildings right next door to each other,” Brangman said. “Building to building – much like you would see in a traditional urban downtown.”

Developer Ernie Delle Donne, who worked on the Health Sciences building, has a likely tenant for the bulk of the 100,000 square feet left to fill in that space, and potentially the next building he erects, Brangman said.

Also proposed is a 10,000-square-foot business incubator that could be located at the campus to serve startup companies in need of wet-lab space for materials development, UD President Patrick Harker said. UD hopes to attract both start-up and legacy companies to the site.

“We need that mix: Both the space for the established, the Fraunhofers of the world, and technology-enabled enterprises,” Harker said. “This is just a continuum of what the University of Delaware’s been doing for a long time at the Delaware Technology Park.”

Residential space is also a possibility but not dormitories, Brangman said. Christiana Care has expressed interest in housing for its interns, and UD has discussed housing for graduate students or junior faculty, he said.

“There certainly might be the opportunity for the buildout of a residential community over time,” Brangman said. “Again, with a full-service train station, that will change the way that whole site will develop.”

Staff reporter Jeff Montgomery contributed to this report.

Contact Melissa Nann Burke at (302) 324-2329, mburke@delawareonline.com or on Twitter @nannburke.

COMMUNITY MEETING ON STAR

WHAT: Public forum on the University of Delaware’s revised Science, Technology & Advanced Research Campus master plan draft

WHO: Members of the community are invited to attend and provide feedback

WHEN: 2 p.m. Thursday

WHERE: Trabant University Center Theatre

CONTACT: Suggestions and comments may be sent to the STAR steering committee at star@facilities.udel.edu