High-speed trains aren’t on the tracks yet in Richmond, but supporters of faster travel on the 123-mile stretch being proposed between Richmond and Washington are cheering the latest step in the process.
For Richmonders, the big news is that Main Street Station in the heart of downtown has been endorsed as a full-service station for high-speed rail by the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT).
The state agency revealed its recommendations on Tuesday, as part of ongoing study of a multi-billion project that could transform the movement of people and goods in the Richmond region.
“It’s huge for downtown,” say Lucy Meade, marketing and development director for Venture Richmond, a private/public group that promotes Richmond’s downtown.
“It’s a 100-year decision,” Meade says, adding that high-speed rail will connect downtowns along the East Coast, creating a cascade of new opportunities for travelers and for business.
The Staples Mill Road Station in Henrico County, which is undergoing an $8.3 million expansion doubling the size of its parking lot from 300 to 600 spaces, is also being recommended as a full-service station for high-speed rail.
State officials have said the Staples Mill station is the busiest Amtrak station both in Virginia and in the South, with a ridership of nearly 362,000 in fiscal year 2015, and it is essential to Main Street Station’s viability.
But more hurdles are ahead before fast trains start rolling.
The Commonwealth Transportation Board will consider DRPT’s recommendations, along with comments from the public, before passing along its own recommendations to the Federal Railroad Administration, which makes the final decision on the route for high-speed rail. After that, finding sufficient funding will be the challenge.
Danny Plaugher, executive director of Virginians for High-Speed Rail, is optimistic. With Virginia’s plan ready and completed, Plaugher says it puts the state at the top of the list if President-elect Donald Trump decides to invest heavily in infrastructure.
Plaugher adds that it also might be good politics for the new president to provide a “benefit to a state he didn’t win.” Virginia was the only one of the old Southern states to be carried by Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Plaugher’s only criticism of DRPT’s recommendations was that it didn’t provide a conclusion to the part of the high-speed rail route that goes through the Town of Ashland.
“The study has been underway for six years now, and I don’t understand why they continue to study it,” he says.
Under the DRPT’s recommendations, the section of the high-speed rail corridor going through Ashland, a community of 7,500 north of Richmond, would receive an additional study, giving stakeholders time to reach a solution everyone can agree on.
Ashland’s Town Council has been adamantly opposed to a proposal for a third rail through the community, saying it would devastate the historic town, and Randolph-Macon College.
Hanover County has been just as opposed to a proposal for building a western rail bypass outside of town that would cut through farms that have been in some families for many generations.
Ashland Mayor James R. Foley says the additional study recommended by DRPT for the Ashland section of the high-speed rail route means more time to reach a possible consensus, but also more uncertainty.
“All the other options that were off the table are coming back on the table, which means tunnel, overpass, eastern options, Buckingham Railroad. Everything is back on the table. We’re not out of the woods,” Foley says.