Leaders oppose moving Ettrick train station to proposed Colonial Heights site

By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: Aug. 4, 2018 | 2:20 p.m. 

Petersburg, Chesterfield, Colonial Heights among community being eyed for station

VIRGINIA – There are few people who live in Southside Virginia near the Tri-Cities who wouldn’t know where the Amtrak train station is, nestled just off River Road in Chesterfield County and within a stone’s throw of Virginia State University.

The small station sees its fair share of travelers, roughly 30,000 per year, averaging to approximately 80 travelers per day, and the station has become part of the Ettrick community and now, officials from across the region are speaking in opposition to a proposal to move the station away from its current location to a new site along Colonial Heights’ Boulevard business corridor, including leaders from Washington.

In a statement last week, Congressman Donald McEachin (D, VA-04) spoke following the delivery of a second letter to the Federal Railway Administration urging federal officials to keep the station in Ettrick.

“I have repeatedly publicly stated my support, including in a previous letter, for the Amtrak station to remain in Ettrick,” McEachin said. “As I said in my letter, this Ettrick station serves the campus community of Virginia State University, the servicemen, and women at Fort Lee and the residents of the village of Ettrick with an ever-increasing ridership.”

The proposal to move the station came following a lengthy analysis of sites across Southside Virginia that culminated in a January 2017 report from the United States Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration that broke down the pros and cons of a number of sites along and just off U.S. Route 1. In the 500-plus page report, officials took an in-depth look at four different locations, Petersburg’s Collier Yard location just off Halifax Road near the Dinwiddie County border, the Colonial Heights Boulevard location along U.S. Route 1 just off Newcastle Drive near Publix supermarket and a short drive from Temple Avenue, a site along Branders Bridge Road in Chesterfield County, and the station’s current home in Ettrick near VSU.

During the study and leading up to the eventual decision to select Colonial Heights as the “preferred alternative” for the station, officials in Dinwiddie, including members of the Dinwiddie Board of Supervisors spoke in favor of keeping having the station move from Ettrick to the Collier Yard site, which saw its proposed location shifted during the analysis after a number of archaeological artifacts from the mid-nineteenth-century were discovered around the proposed site.

The red brick building just of River Road in Ettrick has served as the area Amtrak station for decades, nestled between the Tri-Cities and Dinwiddie County. Now, a proposal could see the station moved further into nearby Colonial Heights. (Michael Campbell)

According to the report, when compared to the costs of keeping the station in Ettrick or relocating to Colonial Heights, the Collier Yard option was the most expensive of the group, with an estimated cost of $14 to $17 million, reported in 2015 dollars, due to a number of design elements of the station that driving that cost, 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.

The finished product of a station, no matter where it is placed, according to the federal report, 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.

In their report, officials also evaluated keeping the station in Ettrick which saw considerable cost savings when compared to the Collier Yard and Boulevard option, with an estimated price tag of only $7 to $9 million. A third platform would be added along with a pedestrian tunnel to access that platform, with officials then being able to decide what to do with the station’s current building in the future, either demolish the facility or renovate it for an alternative use.

The preferred alternative along Colonial Heights Boulevard at the intersection of U.S. Route 1 and Newcastle Drive would see the station built on the opposite side of a parking lot from the decades-gone Nichols Discount City department store, now the home of equipment rental company Rent-E-quip and several other businesses. As part of the proposed development of a new station in Colonial Heights,  a third platform would be constructed, along with a station. That third platform, in order to maximize platform length along that new track, officials said, “The platform would need to extend over and be incorporated onto a new railroad bridge spanning the Boulevard.”

Currently, a two-track bridge crosses over the Boulevard’s four lanes of travel.

Given the current design of the parking lot, with a traffic signal already in place and the already paved parking area, few, if any adjustments would need to be made regarding road access to the site.

In their report, the FRA makes the case for why the Boulevard is the best option of the ones that were evaluated, noting the station “is the most accessible and visible under consideration, as it is located approximately one mile from I-95 on a major arterial that provides convenient access to population centers in the region,” “The site is less than a three minute travel time to I-95,” and “Access from I-95 to the proposed site is provided along existing major arterials, Temple Avenue and Boulevard.”

They also touted improvements to the Temple Avenue area through the installation of a roundabout to help with traffic flow in the area as another point in the Colonial Heights location’s favor and a bus route that did run directly to the site at the time of the 2017 report but, following a falling out over funding between Petersburg and Colonial Heights, that transit route along the Boulevard was discontinued in July of this year by the Petersburg Area Transit Authority.

After the report was filed and a public comment period was held, officials said a vast majority of comments expressed support for the Ettrick and Colonial Heights locations, with Ettrick earning only a few more comments of support than the Colonial Heights site.

In regards to locality support, officials in Prince George, Dinwiddie, Petersburg, Hopewell, and the PAT authority selected Collier Yard, the Colonial Heights site was chosen by Prince George and Colonial Heights, and the lone support of the Ettrick location was Chesterfield County.

As talk about the station possibly being moved from its longtime home at the corner of Bessie Lane and South Street in Ettrick begins to pick up traction, so too does support for keeping the station where it currently is.

This undeveloped area of the Rent-E-Quip parking lot in Colonial Heights could become home to the new Tri-Cities Multimodal Station, should a recent study’s recommendations be accepted. (Michael Campbell)

In his letter, McEachin notes a recent increase in ridership at the station, going from 21,000 in 2008 to 30,700 in 2017.

“Moreover, the station in Ettrick is already there and would not have to be created from the ground up, as in Colonial Heights,” he said. “Chesterfield County … has offered to financially contribute to the upgrades Amtrak needs and wants. Colonial Heights has made no such offer.”

Those points were echoed by the Concerned Citizens of Ettrick, who explained, despite the federal study saying the Boulevard site “is close to the existing population / activity centers, including Fort Lee, VSU, downtown Petersburg and downtown Colonial Heights,” moving the station would be a detriment to VSU students and provide no real difference to Fort Lee ridership.

“VSU students without vehicles would be hindered by moving the station 2.5 miles from the school,” the organization said. “Fort Lee personnel will not be advantaged by the ‘preferred alternative’ location as the travel distance from base to either site is essentially the same.”

In addition, VSU President Dr. Makola Abdullah said a recent survey of underclassmen found that “roughly 1,000 underclassmen, approximately 20 percent” of the university’s 5,000 students use the Ettrick station as their primary means of travel to and from school.

“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.

It is unknown at this stage when a formal decision on where the station will be located, with this report only providing a “preferred alternative” location when compared to the other sites under consideration in Petersburg and Chesterfield.

“I hope the Federal Rail Administration will review and revisit this issue and join us in helping Ettrick and the surrounding area become the thriving community it can be,” Congressman McEachin closed his statement on the matter last week.

The entire January 2017 report can be read on the Crater Planning District Commission’s website at http://craterpdc.org.

Copyright 2018 by Womack Publishing
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