Feds appear to give localities say in new train station location

By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: October 31, 2018 | 4:45 p.m. 

Federal memo states Colonial Heights applying for millions in funding for station

VIRGINIA – As efforts to expand public transportation access, particularly through rail services, continues to grow, the Tri-City region’s role in that expansion has been a topic of conversation, largely centered around where a proposed expanded rail station will be located within the area.

Now, months after the Federal Railroad Administration made their determination of where they believe this new station should be located, a letter from the agency suggests they are more interested in allowing the region’s individual localities vote on where the facility should end up.

That revelation came during the Prince George Board of Supervisors’ retreat at the Central Wellness Center Monday as Supervisor T.J. Webb, who serves as chairman of the Tri-Cities Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, a nine-member board tasked with developing transportation plans and programs in the region, told his fellow supervisors the MPO had come into possession of a letter that suggests federal officials would like to leave the decision of where the train station, known as the Tri-Cities Area Multimodal Station, will be located at a state and local level.

According to a copy of the letter provided by the Crater Planning District Commission, officials with the Federal Railroad Administration state explicitly in their communication to the U.S. Department of Transporation that it is the FRA’s recommendation that “the State and localities resolve their disagreement on station location prior to the conclusion of the [environmental assessment] process,” saying, in part, “Resolution would better enable a project proponent to garner state/local match to any selected application for Federal funding.”

The Ettrick train station in Chesterfield County. (Michael Campbell)

Currently, there are four sites in play for this new multimodal train station, the station’s current home in Ettrick near Virginia State University in Chesterfield County, a site along Colonial Heights’ Boulevard business corridor just north of Temple Avenue, the main access point to Interstate 95 in the city, at Collier Yard in Petersburg near the Dinwiddie County line and Interstate 85, and a site along Branders Bridge Road, also in Chesterfield County.

No matter where the station is built, it would feature a 24-foot-wide center platform that would be roughly 1,200 feet in length, with access to the platform being provided through the construction of an overhead bridge or underpass, a 3,600-square-foot station building with “a minimum of passenger waiting, restrooms, and vending amenities,” parking for 30 to 50 cars, and a vehicle access road.

Within the environmental assessment report published in 2017, it was revealed that the least expensive option for the station was keeping it in Ettrick, totaling between $7 million to $9 million at the time, with savings being found in a possible renovation of the current station building.

On the opposite end, that report showed the most expensive option as being the Collier Yard site, with an estimated price tag of $14 million to $17 million, citing a number of design elements that would need to be taken into consideration for that site to be viable, including the need for a new bridge and an access road to connect to Halifax Road, along with additional clearing of the largely undeveloped land.

For the Federal Railroad Administration, the 2017 report named Colonial Heights as the “preferred alternative” for the station, pointing to its access to various population groups, including members of Fort Lee, and access to forms of public transportation, such as bus service. At the time of the 2017 report, Petersburg Area Transit, who also serves on the MPO, provided bus service along the Boulevard, which included a stop directly in front of where the station would be located should it be built there.

In the summer of 2018, Petersburg Area Transit discontinued the Boulevard aspect of the route, scaling back their operations to just the Southpark Mall corridor, after a falling out over funding between the transit authority and the City of Colonial Heights.

At Monday’s meeting, Webb asked supervisors to provide some guidance on what the county’s position should be when it comes to a possible vote on the matter, which could come as soon as next week as the MPO holds their regular monthly meeting in Petersburg Thursday.

At the time the environmental report was being crafted in 2015, Prince George County had formally put its support behind placing the station either at Collier Yard or in Colonial Heights. The Collier Yard option was also endorsed by fellow MPO members Dinwiddie, Petersburg, the Petersburg Area Transit Authority, and the City of Hopewell.

Colonial Heights supported bringing the station to its city, while Chesterfield voted to keep the station in Ettrick, with no support being shown for the Branders Bridge location.

Now, according to this letter dated August 31, 2018, while Colonial Heights continues to support having the station within its city limits, Petersburg is joining Chesterfield in its support of keeping the station at its current location in Ettrick.

In addition to its support for the project, the letter from the FRA states Colonial Heights has submitted a BUILD application to the U.S. Department of Transporation “requesting $9.6 million for the design-build of the Tri-Cities Area Multimodal Station at the Boulevard site” in August.

In their request, the city “proposed a match of $1 million in local funds with an additional $1.4 million to come from the state’s SmartScale Program; however, the state’s commitment is unconfirmed.”

This area along the Boulevard very well could be the parking area for a new train station if things proceed in Colonial Heights’ favor. The city has begun applying for millions in funding, according to federal documents. (Michael Campbell)

According to the program’s website, BUILD, which stands for “Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development,” Transportation grants “will help communities revitalize their surface transportation systems while also increasing support for rural areas to ensure that every region of our country benefits.”

These projects “will be evaluated based on merit criteria that include safety, economic competitiveness, quality of life, environmental protection, state of good repair, innovation, partnership, and additional non-federal revenue for future transportation infrastructure investments,” the federal program’s website states.

Even though the Federal government has named Colonial Heights as its preferred site for the station and, according to federal documents, the city has begun actively pursuing federal funding of the project, opponents have been vocal about keeping the station in its current location both locally and in Washington.

The letter notes it has received communications from Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner (D-VA) on behalf of locals in Chesterfield County and a group named the Concerned Citizens of Ettrick, all arguing in favor of keeping the station in Ettrick.

Congressman Donald McEachin has also gone on record to publically state his objection to moving the station from Ettrick, noting the vital role the station plays in the daily lives of Fort Lee servicemembers, the Ettrick community, and nearby Virginia State University, a point echoed by university president Dr. Makola Abdullah.

“Our first-year students are not allowed to have vehicles on campus,” the president wrote, “therefore, the Ettrick station is the preferred method of travel for those who otherwise have no reasonable means.”

“During the course of the year, there is not one weekend that goes by without a delegation of our students walking to and from the station for trips to see family and loved ones,” Dr. Abdullah continued.

According to the FRA letter, the proposed station along Colonial Heights Boulevard would cost “between $9 million and $12 million,” slightly higher than the estimated $7 million to $9 million the Ettrick station would cost.

In order for the Tri-Cities Area Metropolitan Planning Organization to decide, the nine-member board would have to vote on the matter as they would do with any other piece of business, with the seven-member localities, along with the Virginia secretary of transportation, which is delegated to VDOT’s Richmond District Engineer, and the Crater Planning District Commission, represented by Dennis Morris, its executive director all casting a vote.

According to the commission, “by custom, the Chairperson of the MPO,” in this case, Prince George Supervisor Webb, “only votes in the event of a tie vote.”

Ahead of the MPO’s meeting, given the memorandum they have received, some aren’t sure what exactly this could mean for the future of the project.

“I am not certain how the Federal Railroad Administration would view a recommendation different from the preferred alternative in the environmental assessment,” Crater Planning District Commission’s Transporation Director David Hyder said.

The MPO is scheduled to meet on Thursday, November 8, at 4:30 p.m. at the Petersburg Area Transit building at 100 West Washington Street in the city. It is suggested that those wishing to attend this meeting call 804-861-1666 to confirm the meeting is still scheduled as “meetings may be canceled because there is no business to transact,” their website states.

Copyright 2018 by Womack Publishing
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