The third meeting of a council debating the preference for how a federal rail project will play out in the Ashland area saw some of the most pointed comments on the process so far last week.
No decisions were made Monday by the community advisory council for DC2RVA, a federal rail project aimed at adding faster train service from Washington to Richmond.
But unlike at the previous two meetings of the council, public officials from the Ashland area, including a state delegate, aired their grievances and desires for the decision-making process, and the public was given a formal opportunity to speak. The three-hour meeting was held at Randolph-Macon College in a room without enough seats for everyone and a struggling air conditioning system.
Speakers focused their comments on their opposition to three possible routes for the rail system: adding a third track through Ashland, a western bypass outside of the town, and an eastern bypass. Then, there were complaints about how the Department of Rail and Public Transportation has handled outreach and presented information.
Ashland Mayor James Foley described a “community up in arms” and expressed frustration with the first two meetings.
“The tone of those were very discouraging and very troubling to me,” Foley said. “There seems to be a lack of common-sense thinking by the consultants.”
In response to Foley, DRPT Director Jennifer Mitchell said there was never any intent to imply that community feedback was not being heard.
“I think in our attempt to explain things and to provide the rationale about some of the analysis that has been done, it may have come across as that we were being dismissive,” Mitchell said. “That certainly was not the intent.”
Foley took issue with the eastern bypass option not being studied as thoroughly as a western bypass or adding a third rail in Ashland.
“Stopping looking at the eastern bypass option because of a horse trail is ridiculous because you never said to the county, ‘Can you move it?’” Foley said in reference to Washington Lacy Park. “I’m not saying the eastern option should be the answer, but I’m saying it should be investigated as much as we’re doing with the west and the other options.”
At a previous meeting, a DC2RVA consultant said impacts on public parks, wetlands and historic properties east of Ashland stopped DRPT from further studying the eastern bypass option. That led Hanover County Administrator Cecil R. “Rhu” Harris Jr. to ask whether the county’s willingness to consider moving Washington Lacy Park would make the eastern bypass option more persuasive for further study to the Federal Railroad Administration, the entity that will have the final say on the DC2RVA route.
Harris said Tuesday that the county’s position has not changed since the resolution adopted by the Board of Supervisors in November stated opposition to consideration of any western bypass option and construction of a third track through Ashland level with the current tracks.
DRPT consultant John Morton said there was no reason to believe that an eastern bypass would not work.
Mitchell Goldstein, a resident of the Providence subdivision east of Ashland, said he was surprised that an eastern bypass that would affect Washington Lacy Park was being considered. Goldstein and his neighbors who live east of Ashland wore blue to Monday’s meeting to make their presence known.
“Mayor, it’s a multi-use park,” Goldstein said. “It’s for hiking, it’s biking, it’s a place where we can send our kids and families. It’s not just for horseback riding.”
Goldstein said residents east of town did not feel they have been represented but would now be speaking up for “trees and trails, not tracks and trains.”
“We may have been silent up until now but no longer,” Goldstein said. “The people east of I-95 have come together to save our communities and our cultural and natural resources.”
Roughly an hour into the meeting, the public was given its opportunity to speak, and Del. Hyland F. “Buddy” Fowler Jr., R-Hanover, was the first to take to the podium. More than 40 people took advantage of the two minutes allotted to each speaker.
“In the interest of of course money, which is always an important issue, and to reduce the impact to the greatest extent possible on our landowners, I really think we need to look at the option that has the least amount of impact and confines itself to the existing right of way to the greatest extent possible,” Fowler said.
Opponents of the western bypass option made their presence known with yellow signs that said “No western bypass.”
Perhaps the youngest speaker, 17-year-old Katie Goodman, spoke in opposition of a western bypass because it runs directly through her family’s land.
“I’ve always dreamed of building my house on the same land that my family’s owned for several generations — eight to be exact,” said Goodman, adding that it made her sick that her future might be altered to save on travel time to Washington. “If people need to go to D.C. that fast, I say that they should probably move closer.”
Supervisor Aubrey M. “Bucky” Stanley said he represents people who live in the east and the west and that he supported a tunnel option. Stanley said any option is going to be expensive when you take into account the purchase of people’s properties.
“I know personally a lot of people who have already contacted attorneys, so it’s going to be a lot of money that’s there that we don’t even know about it,” Stanley said.
Ashland Town Manager Joshua Farrar echoed Foley’s frustrations and asked for advice on how best to proceed.
“I am deathly afraid of voting for something and leaving it in the hands of someone that isn’t on this committee,” Farrar said. “I’m hesitant to cast a vote or use whatever influence I have on this to go for an option that will never be built and a default could be the western bypass, downtown or eastern bypass.”
Foley said he knew people who own hundreds of acres along the Buckingham Branch Railroad line north of Ashland who would be willing to sell their land for the development of higher speed rail in the region.
Foley said the council would not recommend a third track or a western bypass but might recommend exploring an eastern bypass or an underground tunnel. But he worried that when it comes time for the FRA to make a final decision, it will go with whatever makes the most economic sense.
“What I really want to know is what can we do to put a nail in the coffin for the third rail and for some of these other options so that they don’t keep coming back,” Foley said to applause.
Two more meetings are scheduled for Aug. 28 and Sept. 25. A third meeting is planned for Oct. 16 if it’s needed. The locations have not been determined.