Area residents worry that proposed rail line could take homes

June 8, 2016

Source: Scott Shenk | The Free Lance-Star

Bob and Bev Benson live in a nice, spacious Cape Cod in rural Spotsylvania County’s Lee Hill Estates, but the retired couple had been planning to downsize.

A letter they got in May has forced the couple to rethink moving, though.

The letter, from the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, informed the couple of the possibility that a high-speed railroad track could be built about 30 yards from their front door.

If that happened, the house would have to be torn down.

In the meantime, the specter of the possible rail line will devalue their property, said Bob Benson, a retired Realtor.

“We had not a clue” about the proposed project, he said. “This came out of left field.”

Although DRPT has held public hearings and sent out previous letters to homeowners about the proposed Richmond-to-Washington segment of the Southeast High Speed Rail line project, the Bensons and other area residents weren’t aware of it.

The May letter the Bensons received was one of more than 200 sent locally to residents in Spotsylvania, Caroline, Stafford and Fredericksburg, letting them know that officials may need to access their properties as part of an environmental-impact study for the proposed high-speed rail line.

The Bensons and many other property owners would likely be impacted if an eastern bypass around Fredericksburg is built as part of the high-speed rail network.

Watch an interview with the Bensons.

 The bypass would run from just south of the new Virginia Railway Express station in Spotsylvania, loop around just inside Caroline County and then run next to the existing track parallel to State Route 3 into Stafford County.

There are two other alternatives as part of the proposal.

One is to build the third track alongside the existing tracks in CSX Transportation’s right of way.

The third option is to not add a third track; instead, there would be improvements made to crossings, signals and safety systems in the Fredericksburg area.

In all of the scenarios, the Fredericksburg station would have to be expanded.

Nothing at this point is set in stone.

“We’re about halfway through the study,” said DRPT’s Emily Stock, the manager of the Richmond-to-Washington segment of the Southeast High Speed Rail line project.

“We understand and appreciate property owners’ concerns,” she added. “Our goal is to minimize the uncertainty and the impacts.”

According to estimates, the proposed 123-mile Richmond-to-Washington segment rail line would add nine round trips to train traffic through the area and shorten those trips between Richmond and Washington by 15 to 20 minutes.

Although there is no specific timeline for completing the proposed line, the tentative build-out date is 2026.

The project will have to get funding before work can be done.

The DRPT plans to have a draft of the preferred alternatives ready in the fall.

Then there will be more public hearings so people can see the plans and respond to them.

A final decision is expected to be made in 2017.

There already has been an uproar in Hanover County, where residents have expressed disapproval of a potential bypass around Ashland. The backlash prompted the Hanover Board of Supervisors to rescind its approval of the bypass.

DRPT officials likely will be hearing from more area residents with concerns about the alternatives for the proposed rail line.

The Bensons, who have already contacted DRPT officials, are not happy about the potential bypass coming through the front yard of their five-acre parcel, and they don’t think the bypass makes sense.

“This is New Post and they are destroying half of it,” said Bev Benson.

Her husband has printed out maps and scoured over the proposed bypass track and the lay of the land.

“I don’t understand their thinking,” he said. “I found a better route in three minutes.”

He figures seven houses in Lee Hill Estates would be razed as part of the proposed line, along with about four more in the nearby Candlewood neighborhood.

Bob Benson said his neighbors also were surprised by the letters. Many of them thought the high-speed rail letters actually were related to the new VRE station and third track.

So they figured there was nothing to worry about, until Bob Benson told them about the bypass.

Homeowners just across the county line in Caroline thought the same thing, said Laurel Fensterer.

“We’re very frustrated,” she said, adding that it seems as if no one in the county, including elected officials, were kept in the loop on the potential rail line’s impact.

DRPT officials have met with officials in all impacted localities to go over the proposals.

Fensterer said the proposed bypass track would be about 250 feet from the back door of the house where she, her husband and two children live. She and other residents are trying to form a group to come up with a “game plan” on the proposed rail line.

“So many people,” she said, “were taken off guard.”

 ​Scott Shenk: 540.374.5436