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Va. high-speed rail supported heavily at Richmond public hearing

(The following story by John Reid Blackwell appeared on the Richmond Times-Dispatch website on July 21, 2010.)

RICHMOND, Va. A proposed high-speed passenger train system linking Richmond and Raleigh, N.C., got an overwhelming show of support at a public hearing in Richmond last night.

Local residents, government officials and representatives of advocacy groups supporting the Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor said it would reduce traffic congestion on the highways, cut down on pollution, and help contribute to tourism and business in the region.

"We are not going to be able to pave our way out of congestion," said Daniel L. Plaugher, executive director of Virginians for High Speed Rail, during the hearing at the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles office on West Broad Street.

"We need to make high-speed rail a reality."

Almost 200 people attended the meeting, one of a series that state officials are holding to get comments on the proposed designs and environmental impact of the passenger rail line.

Plans call for high-speed rail service linking Richmond to Raleigh with trains running at top speeds of 110 mph. The goal eventually is to link Washington, Richmond and Charlotte, N.C.

In the Richmond area, the trains would travel southbound following an existing CSX rail line and stop at Richmond's Main Street Station before going to Petersburg, then to South Hill and into North Carolina.

Last night's meeting focused mostly on the section of high-speed rail that would run from Main Street Station in Richmond south to the Chippenham Parkway. Another hearing is scheduled for tonight in Petersburg to get public comment on the section of the rail line south to Petersburg.

As at the other meetings, state officials last night posted maps of the proposed track routes so residents could see how their property might be affected.

Maegertha Mixon of Ridgemont Road in Richmond said she considers high-speed rail important for the area, but she is concerned about how noise from the trains might affect her neighborhood, which is near a freight rail line.

"If and when the rail comes, I'm thinking if we want to sell our house and move, there is nobody that would want to buy it, because it's close to two railroad tracks," she said.

State officials at the meeting said the project is in the planning stages and could take years to develop.

The funding also is uncertain. About $5.3 billion is needed to build the state's entire high-speed rail system, and Virginia is dependent on federal money for most of that amount.

"There is no alignment that is confirmed, and there is no source of funding," Thelma D. Drake, director of the state's Department of Rail and Public Transportation, told the crowd.

In January, Virginia was awarded $75 million of an $8 billion federal stimulus package for high-speed rail, far less than the $1.8 billion the state sought to develop a portion of the rail corridor.

The federal government is putting about $2.5 billion into high-speed intercity passenger rail projects this year, and the state is planning on applying this summer for funding from that competitive program, run by the Federal Railroad Administration.

Henrico County resident Mark Rocha went to the meeting to endorse high-speed rail but said the priority should be placed on rail from Richmond north to Washington.

"Everyone would benefit from that," Rocha said.

He said he and his wife moved to Richmond from Northern Virginia six years ago because of the lower cost of living. Their commute to work in Washington as part of a van pool means they have to get up at 4:15 a.m.

"A high-speed train would be great going north from Richmond, at least to Fredericksburg," he said.

The hearing brought out some people whose property would not be affected at all. Nicolas Ruiz, 17, of Midlothian attended the meeting with his father, Oscar, to look over the plans.

"I would love to be able to take a train wherever I need to go, versus taking a plane or a car," the younger Ruiz said. "You know it's good for the environment and the economy."

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

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