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Despite years of spirited lobbying by county leaders, Virginia State University and Ettrick residents, the south Chesterfield village is poised to lose its train station to neighboring Colonial Heights.
During a meeting of the Tri-Cities Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s policy committee last Thursday in Petersburg, officials confirmed that both Ettrick and a second Chesterfield location have been eliminated as potential sites for a new Amtrak station to replace Ettrick’s existing facility.
The Federal Railroad Administration has identified a property on the Boulevard in Colonial Heights as its preferred location for the new station. Its consultant is in the final stages of completing a required environmental assessment that likely will clear the way for building it there.
That would be a significant loss for the county government and VSU, both of which envision a modern train station as a key piece of a long-term plan to expand the university and revitalize the surrounding village with new commercial and residential development. “The community did a great job outlining why they want to keep the station in Ettrick,” said Jesse Smith, the county’s transportation director. “From our perspective, we’d hate to see it relocated. Unfortunately, it’s not up to us.”
A new station is needed because, under federal standards, the existing Ettrick facility – which was built in 1955 – is considered too small to handle even current ridership levels. The most recent available data suggests about 28,000 people use the station on a yearly basis. Many are VSU students who live out of state or in other parts of Virginia.
Consultants have noted the positive economic impact a larger station would have on the surrounding community – particularly if a proposed high-speed rail line comes to fruition, potentially allowing people to commute daily from the Tri-Cities area to high-paying jobs in Northern Virginia and Washington.
Under such a scenario, passenger traffic is projected to more than triple – to nearly 100,000 riders annually – by 2025.
The FRA, which considered four sites, thinks the Colonial Heights property is best positioned to accommodate such future growth because its location along U.S. Route 1 and proximity to Interstate 95 provide “convenient access” to the region’s major population centers.
There is still some question, however, whether the city’s current elected leaders want a train station enough to help pay for it.
Asked for an update on the situation at a community meeting last Tuesday, Matoaca District Supervisor Steve Elswick said Colonial Heights “doesn’t have any money” to build a new station.
When the Tri-Cities MPO policy committee convened less than 48 hours later, Colonial Heights City Councilman John Wood didn’t directly dispel that notion. Wood seemed surprised that the Boulevard location had been chosen. He said he’d have to talk to his fellow councilors and the city administration to determine “to what extent the city is willing to participate” in funding the project.
According to FRA estimates, it’s expected to cost between $9 million and $12 million to build a new, larger Amtrak terminal at the Boulevard location.
Even with federal grant funding, which would cover about 80 percent of the cost, Colonial Heights potentially could have to come up with more than $2 million.
The city could also seek transportation funding through the state’s Smart Scale program, though.
“It befuddles me that our federal and state system would go through this process and not have nailed down a commitment from a locality that they’re going to move forward with funding, whether it comes from grants or the city has to pay for it itself,” said Elswick, who represents Chesterfield on the Tri-Cities MPO’s planning committee.
“Now Colonial Heights is the only site. If Colonial Heights backs out, what’s the next site? Is there a next site or do we start this whole fiasco over again?” he added.
Elswick asked Wood directly if Colonial Heights is committed to funding its share of the cost for the new station.
“I’m only one of many [city decision makers],” Wood replied. “I was not aware there was a hard and fast [financial] commitment. I will talk to my colleagues and see how they wish to go forward.”
According to David Hyder, transportation director for the Crater Planning District Commission, even if the current Colonial Heights City Council decides not to help fund the project, the Boulevard property likely will remain the federal agency’s preferred location.
Once finalized, Hyder said, the environmental assessment will be good for about five years. The City Council’s membership could change between now and then, and a new council conceivably could vote to build the new train station without having to return to square one.
By choosing Colonial Heights, the FRA overruled the findings of a 2015 study performed by the same consultant that is currently finalizing its environmental assessment.
Hired by the Tri-Cities MPO to evaluate the final four sites under consideration, Pittsburgh-based engineering firm Michael Baker International recommended that the new station be built adjacent to the existing Ettrick facility.
At between $7 million and $9 million, that was identified as the least expensive of the prospective options.
The Chesterfield Board of Supervisors committed to funding its share of the costs for the train station and infrastructure upgrades needed to improve access to the Ettrick site.
But as Elswick noted last week, the county “backed off” such plans when the FRA initially indicated its preference to relocate the Amtrak station to Colonial Heights.
“We’ve tried to tell them what a lifeline it is for the college, all the students and parents who ride the train coming down. We’ve thrown every curveball we can to try to get them to see it needs to stay here,” he said.
Wood jokingly suggested during last Thursday’s planning committee meeting that Colonial Heights would welcome any financial support Chesterfield is willing to offer for the new train station.
Elswick, who expressed disappointment at the FRA’s decision, seemed less than amused.
“I don’t think we’re going to see Chesterfield spend any money to build this in Colonial Heights,” he said quietly. ¦
This article first appeared on www.chesterfieldobserver.com
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