Hanover residents turn out to oppose high-speed rail proposals

April 5, 2016

Source: Debbie Truong |  Richmond Times Dispatch

A meeting about a high-speed rail project in Hanover County on Monday turned contentious at times, with many community members voicing disapproval for the project that could cut between 15 and 20 minutes of travel time between Richmond and the nation’s capital.

More than 200 residents and local and state officials crowded into an auditorium at Patrick Henry High School for a meeting that was intended to be informational but served as a forum for some to criticize plans for the project that may require additional infrastructure in the county.

The project is only in the study phase and how, exactly, it could affect the county has yet to be determined. But two of the three proposals currently under study have been met with reproach from residents.

Many have rallied against a proposal that would involve adding a third railroad track in the town of Ashland and a second proposal that would have a bypass cut through the mostly rural farmland west of the town.

Both proposals, residents say, would ruin the quality of life for those who live in and around Ashland. Those concerns were again expressed during the question-and-answer portion of the meeting.

“We can’t afford to be losing any more farmland,” said Ryland Smart, a lifelong Hanover resident who lives along the proposed path of the bypass.

He added after the meeting that a bypass would also hinder his ability to sell his property should he choose to leave because of the project.

“I can’t sell my house,” he said. “I’m going to be stuck.”

Officials from the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation and the county have taken heat from the community for what some have seen as a lack of communication about the project.

Emily Stock, manager for rail planning at the department who presented an overview of the project, began her presentation by acknowledging that more could have been done to involve Hanover residents in the planning process.

“I understand that the process that we’ve used to inform and involve the community and the local governments has not gone far enough — especially in Hanover,” she said. “I apologize for that.”

In response to a question from Rep. Rob Wittman, R-1st, Stock said all congressional offices located “in the alignment” of the track were notified.

“The 1st Congressional District is in there. You have not contacted my office,” he said to applause from the audience.

He added that citizens and the county are owed cost analyses.

The meeting was coordinated by Board of Supervisors chairman Aubrey M. “Bucky” Stanley, who represents the district where the proposed bypass would be built.

The bypass and additional track in the town of Ashland, along with a third no-build option, are under study by the Department of Rail and Public Transportation. The state agency plans on publishing a draft environmental impact statement in the fall that would detail the effects each plan would have on the environment and surrounding community.

Stock also said the state is analyzing another proposal that would require improvements to the two existing tracks in Ashland but still accommodate the higher-speed trains. A period for public comment will follow before the statement is finalized and submitted to the Federal Railroad Administration.

A nonprofit organization, Families Under the Rail, was formed to oppose high-speed rail in the community. The group has raised more than $4,000 on its online fundraising page and collected more than 600 signatures to its Internet petition.

Outside the high school on Monday, the group’s board members operated from a red trailer hitched to the back of a truck. They distributed the yellow signs that read “NO HIGHSPEED RAIL” that have recently proliferated on business storefronts and along residential lawns in Hanover.

After the meeting, Mike Valentine, a member of the group’s board, said he feels the project disguises a larger effort to benefit CSX Freight Trains. CSX owns the rail lines, and the project is also intended to increase capacity for freight.

“It’s freight trains disguised as high-speed rail to get the public to buy in,” he said. “More trash from New York City to Petersburg. More chemicals.”