Ashland not on board with one option for high-speed railway

February 7, 2016

Source: Debbie Troung | Richmond Times Dispatch

A high-speed railway linking Washington and Richmond may have to go through Ashland, troubling some residents in the quaint Hanover County community whose identity is tied to the trains that chug through it daily.

The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation is in the process of drafting an environmental impact statement for the high-speed railway.

As part of that, the department is studying proposed options for new infrastructure that would be needed in Ashland for the project, along with any potential geographic, traffic, community and other effects those would have.

Three possibilities in Ashland were recommended for further evaluation in the second half of the study process, which is unfolding now.

The first is a no-build option; the second would require a bypass to be built west of Ashland for passenger trains that do not stop in town and freight trains; and the third would add a track alongside the two that already cut through downtown.

All proposed options are being considered equally, but the potential for a third track through town has drawn the ire of some town residents as well as objections from a prominent community organization and local governments. Concerns about safety, property values and the local economy, and the fear that a third track would detract from the town’s wholesomeness have circulated.

Ashland has long embraced its proximity to the railroads — the two existing tracks bisect Railroad Avenue and Center Street, which is lined by businesses and homes and is the town’s main dining and shopping corridor.

Homes along the tracks are said to be prime real estate, and town-wide festivities such as the annual Train Day and, more recently, the holiday “Light Up the Tracks” display, celebrate all things locomotive.

How, specifically, a third track through town could affect traffic and access are being studied, but some in Ashland fear it could upend the town.

Tom Wulf, executive director of the Ashland Main Street Association, said the addition of a track and any barriers or fences it would require would create an “incalculable” loss to the community.

“You can’t put a value on the charm, the quaintness and the aesthetic values you would lose,” Wulf said after a community meeting about the project Thursday.

The town hall meeting was organized by Virginians for High Speed Rail at the request of residents, said Danny Plaugher, executive director for the advocacy organization.

Virginians for High Speed Rail, the Main Street Association, and town and county officials all have endorsed the western bypass option.

“Should the study determine that an additional track is needed to serve the DC2RVA corridor, the town recognizes that the western bypass would have the least impact to the community and is the preferred option,” Town Manager Charles W. Hartgrove wrote in a letter to the state rail department.

He also wrote that the town does not support any changes or expansions to tracks that run through Ashland.

Emily Stock, manager of rail planning for the rail department, fielded questions from the community at the meeting and noted that all three ideas for Ashland are being evenly evaluated.

“The idea of potentially putting a third track through town, the idea of a bypass and the idea of doing nothing are on equal footing right now, and the comments that we’ve gotten from this area through our process so far have been overwhelmingly in favor of a bypass,” she said at the meeting.

“We’re obligated to look at all of the options that are potentially feasible that came through our screening process and, really, that’s a way to make sure the option that we end up with is valid,” said Stock, adding that public comment is “absolutely” taken into account.

The state is tasked with the environmental impact statement, but the rail project is planned as part of a larger initiative by the Federal Railroad Administration to connect high-speed rail that already runs from Boston to Washington to as far south as Jacksonville, Fla.

The trains would travel up to 90 mph, and the high-speed tracks would provide more capacity for freight trains.

A draft of the environmental impact statement is scheduled to be completed late this year and be followed by public comment.

Phyllis Booth, who lives along Center Street, commented during the meeting that an added track would devastate the town. Like others who attended, Booth said she is not opposed to high-speed rail and supports the bypass option.

But a third track through town, she said, “would be a stake to the heart of Ashland.”