VA: New Study Considers Sites for HSR Home

Aug. 11--The competitive field has widened in the effort to host a multimodal station with the future possibility of high-speed rail linking the Tri-Cities to Charlotte and Raleigh N.C., and Washington, D.C. Both Chesterfield County and the City of Petersburg have been vying for the station, but a regional study on potential locations has introduced Colonial Heights as a player.

The expansion of Amtrak services in the Tri-City area and the potential development of the Southeast High Speed Rail, create the need for a multimodal station larger than the existing Petersburg Station in Ettrick to serve the Tri-Cities.

A study will be conducted by Michael Baker Jr. Inc., an engineering and consulting firm contracted by the Crater Planning Commission. The commission brings together officials from the Tri-Cities and surrounding localities to foster economic development.

Joseph Vinsh, director of transportation for the commission, said the organization entered into a contract with Michael Baker Jr. Inc. on Thursday to begin the 12-month study in mid-August.

Vinsh said the goal of the study would be to determine which sites would best serve the Tri-Cities as a whole and which location would be able to eventually accommodate high-speed rail. High-speed rail could become a possibility within the next decade.

The $494,000 year-long study is financed in part by the Virginia Department of Transportation, which will pay $294,000, with the City of Petersburg contributing $20,000 and the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation putting in $180,000.

Consultants will consider the impact and potential of a multimodal station at Collier Yard in Petersburg, the existing Petersburg Station in Ettrick, the Walthall area in Chesterfield, the Dunlop Farms Boulevard area in Colonial Heights and the Washington Street area in Petersburg.

Vinsh said at this time, the only defined sites for a station are those in Collier Yard and Ettrick. He said the Walthall and Dunlop Farms areas are being investigated more broadly, and that specific sites haven't been defined. The Washington Street location would be located near the Pepsi Cola Bottling Co.

A document detailing the scope of work for the study said consultants would "pay particular attention" to the areas surrounding the Collier Yard and Ettrick sites during a day-long observation tour of the Tri-Cities.

Vinsh said more sites are being considered because the Federal Railroad Administration requested "that a full range of alternatives be considered." The choice not to build a multimodal station would also be an option. When the study is completed, the FRA would decide whether to allow an agency with the needed resources to start building a station.

At least two public meetings will be held to receive input on the process and to spread awareness.

Consultants plan to follow National Environmental Policy Act guidelines by examining specific factors such as air and noise pollution, as well as the impact on surrounding natural resources. An archaeological and architectural survey will also be conducted to ensure the preservation of historic artifacts and structures. Demographic, economic and real estate trend analysis will be conducted as well.

Specific qualities considered for the studied sites include current zoning and land uses and potential changes, the availability of quality infrastructure and the presence of soil and water contaminants. Also considered are the modes of transportation accommodated, proposed development in the surrounding area, financial and tax incentives, and the architectural significance of surrounding buildings.

These factors are considered in a radius of 1,500 feet in each location. Following the analysis, each site will be classified as either "near-term ready" or "long-term ready."

Near-term sites will be said to have good infrastructure, have limited to no environmental contamination and be accessible by at least two transportation modes. A near-term site would also have to have the preferred zoning in place, or the ability for it to be changed quickly. Safety and "land assembly and demolition" are also considered.

Long-term sites will require extensive clean-up, have limited access to transportation and limited infrastructure, be perceived as unsafe and require "significant land assemblage and demolition."

Data on ridership will also be considered.

An August 2012 Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation study -- called the "Pre-NEPA Evaluation: Tri-Cities Area Multi-modal Station Study" -- also evaluated both Collier Yard and the station in Ettrick by NEPA guidelines.

The study at first also considered a Washington Street site and a Dunlop Farms Boulevard site, but these two sites were removed from consideration by their localities before the study was completed.

Among the advantages of Collier Yard is even greater ease of access to Interstates 85 and 95. Also, the 140-acre site at the south end of the city would allocate more space for other modes of transportation and parking.

The study said that the 9.5 acre Ettrick site does have the room to expand to meet long-term increases in ridership, "but would be constrained because of land availability and access to transit oriented development."

The Collier Yard site is located next to two Civil War battlefields, which requires that development be coordinated with the Petersburg National Battlefield.

The Ettrick site has the advantage of existing infrastructure since it's the location of the Petersburg Station Also, access to biking and walking paths are more readily available and it's located a short walk from Virginia State University. VSU projected to grow from 6,000 students to 10,000 by 2020.

However, an environmental analysis of the Ettrick site found that noise disruption could raise environmental justice concerns because the village is largely a minority area. A federally endangered species of shrub, Michaux's sumac, may also be growing on the site.

The study also said that improvements were needed to "traffic circulation and flow" at the Ettrick site.

William Dupler, deputy Chesterfield County administrator, said in an interview last year that a county project to widen East River Road to a four-lane road would provide an improved main artery accessing the station in Ettrick.

To inch it's way ahead of the competition, the county applied for a $10 million federal grant last year to improve access to the station and to expand it to accommodate the projected increase in ridership.

The TIGER Discretionary Grant allocates $474 million for capital improvements in transportation infrastructure. Funds from the grant are offered to localities on a competitive basis.

The county wasn't able to obtain the grant, but if it had, improvements would have included building connecting bike and pedestrian paths to the station, paving the parking lot, and adding taxi and bus stops.

The county would have bene required to provide $2.5 million in matching funds for the grant.

- Leah Small may be reached at 722-5172 or lsmall@progress-index.com. New study considers sites for high-speed rail home

Copyright 2014 - The Progress-Index, Petersburg, Va.

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