High-speed rail on track to cross county
It isn’t moving at the speed of a bullet, but the effort to build a high-speed passenger rail line through Chesterfield County to connect Richmond with Raleigh, N.C., passed another mile marker recently.
In addition, a plan to connect Richmond with Hampton Roads by passenger rail is moving ahead at full steam and could increase traffic significantly at the Amtrak station in southern Chesterfield – if the station stays there.
Last month, transportation officials in Virginia and North Carolina presented the Federal Rail Administration with their detailed recommendations for each of the 26 sections of the proposed high-speed line between Richmond and Raleigh. Three of those sections, running from Richmond to Petersburg, cover portions of Chesterfield County, including one section that’s entirely within the county.
During last week’s meeting of the Committee on the Future, Jim Banks, assistant director of the county Department of Transportation, provided information about the high-speed rail plan. The committee is a volunteer group that researches and makes recommendations on county trends and development.
“We’re still in the process of evaluating more and more information about the project,” Banks said in an interview.
The latest recommendations match the route that was first proposed to county residents two years ago, when backers of the high-speed line presented details of the plan in a series of community meetings across Virginia and North Carolina.
Some of the people who attended those meetings, including Centralia resident Mike Maxey, were not persuaded by what they heard.
Maxey hasn’t changed his opinion, “The whole thing lacks justification, lacks merit, lacks validity,” he said last week.
Two years ago, Maxey said, he put up two signs in front of his property. One reads, “Stop the Train,” and the other reads, “Stop the High-Speed Rail.” Both signs are still there, he said.
Maxey opposes the project in part because of the taking of private property through eminent domain that will be needed to get the additional right-of-way needed for the rail project.
Also, based on the ongoing need for government subsidies for Amtrak, Maxey said he doesn’t think high-speed rail service makes economic sense. “If you’re already spending billions on something that’s failing, why spend hundreds of billions on something that will fail?” he asked.
The county government hasn’t taken an official position on the project at this point. But whatever the benefits of the high-speed line might be regionally or nationally, its most obvious effect locally is likely to be the disruption of traffic and access to homes and businesses during construction, especially during roadwork to eliminate grade-level crossings, Banks said. “That always has an impact on adjacent properties,” he noted.
The recommended route would run parallel to the existing CSX line that Amtrak currently uses. Because it’s intended to accommodate trains traveling at speeds up to 110 miles per hour, the project will require construction of an entirely new track over its entire length.
That track would require special engineering, including smoother curves, wider bridges and the elimination of grade-level crossings, where motor vehicles actually drive across the tracks.
In Chesterfield, that would mean building over- or underpasses or realignments on 21 public roads and closing five crossings entirely: on Brinkley Road and Old Lane in Centralia, West Street in Chester, and Indian Hill Road and Woods Edge Road in the Walthall area.
The project’s special engineering means it will require a wider swath of land than the existing track, making it necessary to acquire property along the route and in some cases to move homes or businesses – a total of 90 homes and eight businesses along the three sections from Richmond to Petersburg.
Planners currently estimate the total cost of the three sections that affect Chesterfield at $469.3 million, or about $17.3 million per mile. The estimated total cost of the Richmond-Raleigh line is $2.2 billion, and it’s just part of a larger project to create high-speed rail service from Washington, D.C., to Atlanta and Jacksonville, Fla.
Supporters argue that the rail line will ease congestion on Interstates 85 and 95 and other highways around the major cities in the Southeast. Ultimately, they say, it will reduce travel times and provide an affordable alternative to both highway and air travel.
It’s unclear how the county might benefit directly from the project. It’s possible that some residents might find short-term work during construction. And the county would get some improved, safer rail crossings out of the project.
One potential benefit is the possibility of increased use of the Amtrak station in Ettrick, Banks noted. The Ettrick station is currently Amtrak’s only stop in Virginia south of Richmond. And use of that station is likely to increase long before any high-speed line is built – by the end of this year, in fact, when a new passenger route between Richmond and Norfolk is scheduled to go into service.
“There is a benefit” from that new line, Banks said, in the form of “more activity, more passengers at the station” that could feed into ongoing revitalization efforts in Ettrick.
However, even that benefit could be short-lived. Inspired by the high-speed rail proposal, regional planning officials have asked the Department of Rail and Public Transportation to look at the feasibility of building a new train station at the current location or at an alternative site in Petersburg.
That study is under way and is scheduled to be completed by the end of this year, according to Mike Todd, a planner and project manager with the state Department of Rail and Public Transportation.