Friday, November 14

The potential of rail

A few weeks ago, the wife and I were on a nice Sunday stroll down Charlottesville’s West Main St. when we noticed an unusual number of people passing us on the sidewalk. Certainly over a hundred people, all clustered together in small groups clinging onto some little brochure, were on their way toward the downtown pedestrian mall. I assumed there was some major event going on, but eventually my curiosity got the best of me and I asked a middle-age lady and her friend what the deal was.

Oh the train just came in. We’re all here on a trip from Greensboro, North Carolina.”

I later discovered that this is was a special tourist train that only runs two days a year. Imagine all of the economic vitality generated from just that one train. Not only did downtown have exclusive service for hundreds of visitors, but they were spared the enormous expense of having to find a place to put their cars while they shopped and dined. Walking tourists would be more likely to meander into open shops, generate the social vitality that tends to attract even more people, and – hey – all that walking makes you hungry.

I started thinking of what would happen if crowds of rail passengers unloaded everyday? Even multiple times a day? Charlottesville resides a mere 100 miles away from one of the most sophisticated and heavily-used transit systems in the country, the Washington D.C. metro. If we could somehow plug ourselves into this system, Charlottesville could reap the benefits of economic growth without the downsides of sprawl and congestion.

The whole city would benefit, as service and information economy firms based in D.C. find Charlottesville, with the University of Virginia right in the middle, an attractive location for operations. Currently driving up 29 North, with its numerous stop lights and rush hour traffic, is a substantial impediment to access to the Washington metro region. Conversely, many employees of firms in D.C. may find downtown Charlottesville a place they could commute from without having to own an automobile.

Some of the benefits would be localized.

The location of the Amtrak station could not be more ideal, sitting half way between the University and downtown. The City’s West Main corridor plan calls for mixed-use redevelopment of this underutilized part of town, but for some reason the financing and actual construction has not been entirely forthcoming. A busy Amtrak station could realistically become a third economic hub within city limits, bolstering the entire area within the 1500 ft. radius indicated on the map. The new life generated by Transit-Oriented Development has been demonstrated numerous times, with the Arlington corridor of northern Virginia a quintessential example.

These are some properties in the immediate vicinity of the Amtrak station that could use a little boost:

(Not pictured are a few underused surface parking lots and auto body shops)

The Organization CvilleRail has been advocating for something like this for a while now. At the federal level, the chattering classes are bringing up a renewed national rail network more and more frequently. With a new administration about to be sworn in, and a potential for a new Office of Urban Policy, these sorts of speculations may be more than simple pipe dreams.


rob said...

You may already be aware of this, but one policy idea that has (in my opinion) a lot of potential to push projects like DC-Charlottesville rail forward is a national infrastructure bank (and perhaps what is most exciting about it is that Obama has proposed implementing one at various times).

Daniel Nairn said...

Thanks a ton, Rob. I had heard something about this, but the links you sent give me a much fuller picture.

LH said...

Daniel -

Being able to take the train to Charlottesville? I'm giddy at the thought. Here's hoping it happens.