By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: November 20, 2018 | 12:30 p.m.
Colonial Heights, Chesterfield, Petersburg all vying for new train station
VIRGINIA – As officials with the Metropolitan Planning Organization prepare to review and closely analyze thousands of pages of documents, charts, and public comments related to the proposal to build a new train station, the impact of changes in public transit on the locality in the lead for the station are likely to be among the topics looked at.
In 2017, the Federal Railroad Administration and Crater Planning District Commission released an environmental assessment that took a close look at four sites for a new train station named the Tri-Cities Multimodal Station, which would help service the Southeast High-Speed Rail corridor between Richmond and Central North Carolina: the current site in Ettrick near Virginia State University in Chesterfield County, a location along a residential stretch of Branders Bridge Road also in Chesterfield, Collier Yard in Petersburg near Dinwiddie and Interstate 85, and Colonial Heights along The Boulevard just north of Temple Avenue near Publix supermarket.
That extensive report eventually concluded that Colonial Heights and its location along Boulevard in the ADEC Center parking lot is the “preferred alternative” of those evaluated by the Federal government, citing a number of different reasons in its favor.
According to the federal report, in being named the “preferred alternative,” officials believe Colonial Heights’ site “best meets the purpose and need of the project and is favored by the agencies for approval and future construction,” adding that the agencies involved, which include the Federal Railroad Administration and the Federal Highway Administration, among others believe this location “would most closely align with their statutory mission and responsibilities, giving consideration to economic, environmental, technical, and other factors.”
The rationale for their selection includes that the Colonial Heights site is “the most accessible and visible under consideration,” with it being located a mile from Interstate 95 on a major roadway that provides easy access to population centers in the region, with the now-completed traffic circle along Temple Avenue boding well in the city’s favor.
In addition, the site has existing parking options, which would be needed for the construction of the new station, parking area, and high-speed platform and, according to federal documents, the preferred alternative has been endorsed by the city.
Now, as the city, according to a federal memo provided by a concerned citizens organization trying to keep the station in Ettrick to the Crater Planning District Commission and MPO, seeks millions of dollars funding for the station from the Federal government, some have questions about if Colonial Heights indeed is still the best option now following changes to mass transit in the city.
In the 2017 report, one of the reasons listed for why Colonial Heights was considered the “preferred alternative” pointed to “existing transit routes [that] provide access to the site along the Boulevard,” known as U.S. Route 1.
That service was provided by Petersburg Area Transit, who operates bus routes throughout the Tri-Cities, including service in the Tri-Cities and parts of Chesterfield and Dinwiddie.
At that time, PAT’s Southpark Mall bus route had been expanded two years prior to include a large stretch of the Boulevard business corridor, running as far north as Ellerslie Avenue near Publix supermarket, eventually passing directly by the ADEC Center, where this station would be located before heading due south to the Petersburg bus station just outside of downtown.
In the summer of 2018, it was revealed that the service would be scaled back to only service the Southpark Mall corridor, which would also include removing the stop in front of the ADEC Center after a falling out between the city and the transit authority over funding.
According to media reports, Colonial Heights opted to end the Boulevard route after being presented a price tag of $400,000 annually to continue the service by Petersburg Area Transit. In speaking with The Progress-Index newspaper, PAT Director Charles Koonce said the route was built based on a formula from the Federal Transit Administration and that PAT gave the city a dollar figure and “they declined service.”
Koonce told the newspaper that the city had paid $50,000 the previous year for the service and prior to that, Colonial Heights was not paying for that service.
Now, with the route no longer traveling along the Boulevard stopping near the ADEC Center, the nearest bus stop is just over two miles away at Southpark Mall or a half-hour walk.
In addition, the report states the Boulevard site is “close to existing population/activity centers, including Fort Lee, VSU, downtown Petersburg, and downtown Colonial Heights.”
Currently, PAT provides bus service in Ettrick in Chesterfield County, roughly a tenth of a mile outside of the station along Bessie Lane. The station and bus service also serves as a key transportation outlet for students at the university, as first-year undergraduates are not allowed to have a vehicle on campus.
Should the station be moved to Colonial Heights, students and Ettrick travelers could take the Ettrick PAT bus into the City of Petersburg and then take a Colonial Heights PAT bus to Southpark Mall but, it would still leave them nearly two miles away from the station, needing to walk along either Temple Avenue, which lacks sidewalks and crosswalks in portions of the area and can have heavy vehicular travel due to its links to Interstate 95, north along Conduit Road to Ellerslie Avenue, or have to call for a taxi or other service to eventually reach the station.
In the 2017 report, officials stated Colonial Heights received the highest “WalkScore,” which is a “widely used measure of walkability in the station area that looks at the presence of sidewalks, land use and the overall pedestrian environment and measures how amenable it is to walking.”
According to the report, the site is located within a “somewhat walkable environment,” the only station site to receive that rating, which WalkScore defines as, “Some errands can be accomplished on foot.”
While some portions of the Boulevard feature sidewalks, including portions near the proposed site at ADEC Center, parts of Temple Avenue, which is a direct route to the closest bus line lack sidewalks and would require pedestrians to navigate busy intersections, including interstate on-ramps, without pedestrian signals and crosswalks. (Michael Campbell)
While most of the Boulevard features sidewalks, pedestrian signals, and other walker-friendly assets along the U.S. Route 1 corridor after a large road improvement project following the construction of their new courthouse, parts of Temple Avenue, the main artery from the station to access the current public transit line, lack those same features.
According to the federal memo provided to officials at the MPO, the City of Colonial Heights has submitted an application for funding late this summer “requesting $9.6 million for the design-build of the Tri-Cities Area Multimodal Station at the Boulevard site,” adding the city has “proposed a match of $1 million in local funds with an additional $1.4 million to come from the state’s SmartScale Program,” but the state’s commitment is “unconfirmed” as of the time of this August 2018 memo.
As the MPO’s technical committee prepares to review the proposed station project after that same memo stated the Federal Railroad Administration would like to see “the state and localities resolve their disagreement on station location” before the completion of the environmental assessment process, officials with Crater Planning District Commission said the impact of the mass transit changes are among the myriad things that will be evaluated before their recommendations are presented to the MPO’s policy committee, who would be tasked with coming to some form of a consensus.
“We have discussed within our technical advisory committee as to how to approach that issue,” David Hyder, Crater PDC’s transportation director, said in an interview. “It could be a situation where the document,” referring to the environmental assessment, “says transit on the Boulevard, we may recommend that PAT and Colonial Heights work together to ensure that is there.”
“Getting passengers to and from the train, that is something that should happen,” he continued.
At this stage, the Federal government has yet to make a final decision on station location and they are in the process of considering all comments that have been received as part of the environmental assessment process.
The MPO’s technical advisory committee is expected to present their findings to the board during a meeting in January.