DC2RVA high-speed rail project progressing

March 8, 2016

Source: Meredith Rigsby | Richmond TImes Dispatch

ASHLAND — The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT) and Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is about halfway through a three-year-long study being conducted concerning a proposed project to construct a high-speed rail connecting Washington, D.C., Richmond, Raleigh and Charlotte, North Carolina, and Atlanta, Georgia, with a spur from Richmond to Hampton Roads.

“The goal of the project is to identify and evaluate specific rail infrastructure improvements and service upgrades that will increase passenger rail service frequency, so the number of rails that would come through, and the reliability,” Emily Stock, project manager for the Department of Rail and Public Transportation, said. “It [the project] would help with the on-time performance of the passenger rails in the corridor and it would also lower travel time.”

In 2014, public scoping meetings about the 123-mile DC2RVA rail project were held, seeking input on the project’s scope, purpose and need, and proposed project process.

In June 2015, additional public meetings were held, asking for input concerning the screening process and criteria, according to the DRPT’s website.

DRPT, in conjunction with the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT), FRA and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), conducted a Tier I Environmental Impact Study (EIS) in 2002 that examined railway from Charlotte to Washington, D.C.

The Tier I EIS determined the purpose of the high-speed rail would be to improve on-time performance, improve trip times by 15 to 20 minutes, and add up to nine round-trips daily.

The study also recommended that project construction stay within the existing CSX right-of-ways as much as possible in order to achieve higher speeds and better efficiencies, according to Stock.

“The 2002 study said to do as many incremental improvements as possible to get higher speeds and better reliability within the existing corridor rather than going completely off the existing corridor and developing a green field,” Stock said.

The DRPT is working toward drafting the second phase of its environmental impact statement, in part, to determine which of the three proposed infrastructure options for the portion of the rail running through the Ashland/Hanover area is the most feasible.

DRPT staff is currently conducting field investigations and collecting data to find out what types of resources are available in the corridor, how the proposed infrastructure options will actually benefit passenger rails and how to design improvements in a way that will avoid cultural and natural resources and private property, Stock said.

Track options for the Ashland portion of the rail include no build; the addition of a third track on the east side of the existing track that runs through town; and the addition of a bypass to the west of Ashland.

The Tier II EIS study is expected to be completed at the end of 2017, after which DRPT will receive a record of decision from the FRA in response to the study.

Although Cecil R. “Rhu” Harris Jr., county administrator of Hanover County, and Ashland’s Town Manager Charles Hartgrove have sent letters to Stock supporting the option for a double-track bypass to the west of Ashland, residents from the area that attended a town hall meeting held Wednesday, Feb. 17, by U.S. Rep. Dave Brat, R-7, did not support this infrastructure option.

Stock said public comment has contributed to and driven some of the infrastructure alternatives that have been presented so far for the project.

Public comment is “consistently guiding the process,” she said.

The DPRT is looking at the corridor “mile-by-mile” to determine which infrastructure options will work best on different parts of the rail.

All infrastructure options are currently being assessed equally and none of the options are concrete at this point.

“Once we get out into the field, once we can really investigate these alternatives in detail, we may find some resources that we really are, we just can’t impact and we have to change the designs or it will steer us to a different design,” Stock said.

Virginia received $44.3 million in federal high-speed rail funds in 2010 that is enabling it to conduct the Tier II EIS for the portion of the corridor between Richmond and Washington, D.C.

The DC2RVA project is being funded by three sources, Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) High Speed Rail Grant ($44,308,0000); Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation ($8,101,000); and CSXT ($2,976,000) for a total of $55,385,000.

Once the DRPT finishes its project analysis, field work and service development plan, it will release its draft Tier II EIS to be evaluated by resource agencies in the fall.

Public meetings allowing for public comment also will be held following the release of the Tier II EIS.

Once the Tier II EIS study is completed, the next step will be to apply for federal funding for construction, which also would include final design and any right-of-way acquisition that may be needed.

These activities could take a couple of years, Stock said.

Once funding is secured, the DPRT can begin construction.

If everything goes according to plan and is “best case scenario,” the DC2RVA high-speed rail project is expected to be completed in 2025.

“I just want to encourage people to look at information about the project on our website, and also to let them know this is an evolving process and we are still collecting data and we really want to get as much participation as possible when we have more information to share with the public in the fall,” Stock said.