Hanover Supervisors Backtrack on Position for High-speed Rail Project

April 26, 2016

Source: Debbie Truong | Richmond Times-Dispatch

The board passed a resolution revoking its previous endorsement of the bypass at its meeting Wednesday night but did not formally adopt a position supporting any of the proposed alternatives.

County officials have faced pressure in recent months from landowners and residents imploring them to rescind a letter sent by County Administrator Cecil R. “Rhu” Harris Jr. to the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation in January that indicated the county preferred the bypass over adding a third track in Ashland, which residents in and around the town have also roundly opposed.

The resolution further states that the board “seeks to partner with the residents of Hanover County and the town of Ashland to identify the best alternative for our community to provide safe and efficient freight and passenger rail service.”

A bypass, a third track and a “no-build” option were floated for further study by the state rail agency for the portion of the high-speed railway that would travel through Hanover. More recently, Emily Stock, manager of rail planning for the Department of Rail and Public Transportation, said the agency is also studying an option that would require minor upgrades to the two tracks that currently run in Ashland.

A previous version of the resolution drafted by board Chairman Aubrey M. “Bucky” Stanley and posted to the county’s website also sought to support the minor upgrades, but that language was removed.

Stanley publicly apologized to Ashland District representative Faye Prichard for failing to communicate with her before crafting the initial version of the resolution.

“What troubles me about the current options as we see them for DRPT is that we don’t know what any of them mean,” Prichard said, adding that it was important to her that “the folks in Ashland and the folks in the western part of the county present a united front.”

All of the proposed options are being studied further by the rail agency, which will issue a draft of an environmental impact study in the fall, to be followed by a period for the public to provide input.

The advocacy group Virginians for High Speed Rail issued a statement warning that a “modified no-build” alternative could potentially eliminate Amtrak service in Ashland “because of the time associated with slowing down, loading/unloading passengers, and speeding back up.”

“The easiest way to increase capacity without building more tracks is by no longer stopping passenger trains at that stop,” the statement continued. “We need to make sure that Ashland is not turned into a pass-through town where passenger trains no longer stop.”

Stock, with the rail agency, said in a phone interview that all of the options continue to be studied and tested and that it is unclear how or if passenger rail service to the Ashland station would be affected by minor upgrades to the train tracks.

“That’s going to be part of our due diligence,” she said, reiterating that the purpose of the rail project is to provide a mode of transportation competitive with others and that allows goods and people to travel more efficiently in the region.

She said it was important to balance the project’s intentions with minimizing effects on the surrounding area.

The resolution was not up for public comment, but board members for Families Under the Rail, a nonprofit recently formed out of opposition to the western bypass, expressed satisfaction about the resolution and heralded it as a step forward.

The high-speed rail project is part of a larger federal initiative. Officials have said it would travel at speeds up to 90 mph, shed travel time between Richmond and the nation’s capital by 15 to 20 minutes, and add more capacity for freight trains.