High-speed rail could change town

June 24, 2015

Source: Editorial | Herald Progress, Ashland

The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT) and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) are continuing their preliminary engineering and environmental review of the Washington D.C.-to-Richmond segment of what they’re calling the Southeast High Speed Rail corridor.

And Ashland’s in the middle of it.

The larger goal is to bring high-speed intercity passenger rail service throughout the East Coast states. The D.C.-to-Richmond stretch would link the southeast and northeast components. Alternative transportation options are always worth exploring, as motorists are reminded whenever they take Interstate 95 to D.C.

This particular proposal could result in a significant transformation to downtown Ashland.

DRPT and FRA are anticipating a third track would be needed for the high-speed service, but downtown Ashland doesn’t have enough spare road area to accommodate such a widening.

A presentation from a June 3 community meeting posted at www.dc2rvarail.com states, “Adding a third main-line track at grade through historic downtown Ashland would impact existing car lanes. The constraints on the rail alignment make it very difficult to add additional track to this section of rail. Therefore, DRPT also will evaluate elevated and below grade alignments, as well as bypass options for some or all rail traffic around Ashland.”

That would mean either a bridge lifting the tracks above vehicular traffic, a tunnel allowing trains to barrel forth underneath the downtown area, or a reduced number, if not a total absence of trains traveling through downtown Ashland. The first two possibilities would drastically alter the historic appearance of the downtown as well as the experience for those traveling through, and the third could hurt the town’s economy.

No decision is being made yet. DRPT and FRA are planning additional public meetings late in the year (dates to be announced), and a tier II environmental impact study is scheduled for a 2017 completion. At whatever point a plan is approved, it would take several more years for the project to reach fruition. Nothing is happening overnight. Hanover’s newest high school graduates could likely be celebrating their 10-year reunions by the time any significant effects have emerged, if any ultimately do.

The project can be followed at www.dc2rvarail.com. The website lists contact information to submit comments.

If the state and federal agencies decide to move ahead with high-speed rail, the odds of Ashland remaining unaffected would be slim. It would be up to the business community, town government, and civic organizations to employ their ingenuity to turn whatever situation arises into a net advantage for the community.