Public meeting on high speed rail held in Richmond

The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation began holding a series of public meetings this week to hear what residents think about plans to bring high-speed train service to the corridor between Northern Virginia and a portion of Chesterfield County.

The meetings are the first step in a process that will address what options are available and what needs to be done to connect the Washington and Richmond areas with high-speed rail.

The goal of the project is to come up with an implementable plan that will take what has been just an idea and turn it into a reality.

“The step following this … is how we go about funding and building this project,” Kevin Page, chief operating officer of the rail department, said Thursday night.

“We will have all the federal clearances to go get the building permits both for the environmental work and the civil and construction work to make this corridor a reality.”

The project, expected to be complete within three years, is the second step in a two-tiered process of federal review.

Officials say they will have some findings to share with the public in about nine months, and there will be public hearings in 2016. The final study should be complete in 2017.

Page spoke to about 100 people in Richmond in the second of four public meetings the department is holding this month.

The first was Wednesday in Ashland, and two more are scheduled for Northern Virginia next week. Officials said about 60 people attended the Ashland meeting.

These meetings focus on a 123-mile stretch between Arlington County, where the Long Bridge crosses the Potomac River into Washington, and Centralia in Chesterfield, halfway between Richmond and Petersburg. The corridor runs parallel to Interstate 95.

The section being discussed is the northernmost portion of the Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor. If all goes well, the corridor will someday connect Jacksonville, Fla., and Washington with high-speed rail.

Amtrak’s northeast service already connects Washington to Boston.

The rail department believes that if high-speed rail can be built out along the corridor, it could decrease travel time between the cities, improve reliability, increase the frequency of service and give travelers more options.

“It would keep me living here, which is what I want to do,” said Steven Ollek of Chesterfield.

Ollek works for the Defense Department at Fort Lee. One of several reasons he likes the idea of high-speed rail is for commuting.

Ollek said if he is ever transferred to the Washington area, he’d like to stay here.

“I’d be more inclined to stay in Richmond and work in D.C. if I had that high-speed opportunity versus taking Amtrak every day, which right now is way too expensive and takes too long,” he said.

Stewart Schwartz, who lives on Church Hill and works in Washington, believes that what’s important to businesspeople is not necessarily speed but reliability.

“If you can know that you’re going to be 90, 100 percent reliable, then you can make your meetings in Washington or vice versa,” he said.

“But you won’t take the train if the train is routinely late. We know now that (Interstate) 95 is completely unreliable from Fredericksburg north in terms of on-time performance. What would make the train competitive is reliable on-time performance.”

Schwartz is executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth and commutes to Washington three times a week.

As study on the Washington to Richmond corridor begins, the department is continuing to work on a study for a Richmond to Raleigh connection.

That study is about a year ahead of the new one.

The Richmond-to-Raleigh corridor will need to include nearly 100 new bridges and overpasses to be combined with existing spans.

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