High Speed Rail on Track?

August 19, 2015

Source: Mark Robinson | Richmond Magazine

Construction workers will begin peeling the corrugated metal skin from the steel skeleton of the Main Street Station train shed this month, marking the first visible sign of progress at the future site of what city leaders hope will be some kind of regional high-end retail, culinary and cultural showcase.

“This will be a wonderful gateway for Richmond,” Mayor Dwight C. Jones said during a press tour of the building in early June.

But the 40-minute event raised more questions about the project than it answered. Not least among them is the wisdom of spending $46 million renovating a 100,000-square-foot building without nailing down what, exactly, is going inside. Does this amount to a multi-million gamble to lure a high-speed rail line that may bypass Main Street Station altogether?

City planners are relying on public input to shape what will go inside of the train shed, says project manager Jeannie Welliver of the city’s department of community and economic development. The city is asking city dwellers for their “big dream” ideas for the building.

Welliver envisions something similar to Union Station in Washington, D.C. or Redding Terminal in Philadelphia. At the same time, she says, it will be Richmond-centric, housing local and national retailers, as well as eateries and areas for culinary demonstrations, plus a special event space, and a tourism welcome center for the city and state. Shockoe Bottom’s history, the city’s arts and outdoors scenes could have a place in the shed, too, she says.

The derelict shed, located on the back end of Main Street Station — among the most recognizable (and probably most Instagrammed) buildings in the city — dates to 1901 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Its renovation is the third phase of an $86 million project that began in 1993 and relies heavily on Federal Transit Administration grants. Earlier phases included the purchase of the clock tower building from the state, renovation of that iconic tower and the 2003 reinstitution of passenger service, which stopped in 1975.

The city also acquired the train shed and built the bus and parking plaza across East Main Street. Last September, the city began using the remaining $46 million to renovate the train shed. Improvements include new mechanical and plumbing systems, restoration of the building’s historic riveted steel and installation of glass walls, which will begin later this year. Renovation is expected to be complete by fall of 2016.

In addition to $63 million in federal funds, the state contributed $18 million to the project, and the city kicked in $5 million.

The details may now be hazy, Welliver says, but they will come into focus as the city reviews public feedback.

Welliver and other city officials acknowledge the train shed renovation is meant to make Main Street Station a more attractive location for high-speed rail service. The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation [DRPT] is in the process of conducting an environmental study to determine a route that would increase service between Washington D.C. and Richmond.

Service could run through Main Street Station only, the Staples Mill station only, a yet-to-be-built station in the vicinity of West Broad Street and Boulevard only, or some combination of all three. Each option has its challenges, says Emily Stock, DRPT’s manager of rail planning. Main Street Station’s are the most complex.

Rail alignments built during the 20th century by competing companies make the area around Main Street Station a logistical nightmare. It’s difficult for trains to turn around. There’s no way for passenger trains to bypass freight trains, which barrel through downtown six times as often per day as Amtrak trains do. The congestion causes frequent and frustrating bottlenecks and backups that extend passenger and commuter trip times. Improving infrastructure to deal with those logistical issues would be costly, Stock adds. Just how costly won’t be known until 2017, when DRPT completes the study.

That said, “there’s not a fatal flaw that would keep it from being the train station we envision it to be,” says Viktoria Badger, a program manager for transportation development in the city’s department of economic and community development.

The Federal Railroad Administration [FRA], which ultimately will decide what route receives funding, outlines criteria for high-speed rail projects. Among them are connecting downtown business districts, convenient proximity to underserved populations and easy access to alternative modes of transportation. Check, check and check, local officials say. The Virginia Capital Trail, a pedestrian and bike path, will run underneath the train shed. The Broad Street bus rapid transit line will be operational in fall 2017, according to GRTC, and Megabus operates out of the parking lot across the street.

As it is now, however, more train riders pass through the Staples Mill Station in four months than have passed through Main Street Station in the last three years, according to data provided by the Richmond Metropolitan Authority. Only four passenger trains come through downtown daily. That number could increase to between 32 and 35, Welliver says, if the FRA includes Main Street Station in the project. DRPT will make a final recommendation to the feds in mid-2017, Stock says. At the earliest, the project would be completed by 2025.

Bypassing Main Street Station may be cheaper, but doing so could stunt downtown’s growth and hurt the city’s economic development, Welliver says.

“If you look at only speed of travel and cost of infrastructure improvements, Main Street Station is going to be left out,” Welliver says. “But there’s a cost of making the wrong decision, too.”