Saturday, May 22

How might rail shape Charlottesville?

When Amtrak introduced new rail service between Washington DC and Lynchburg last fall, they hoped to meet an annual ridership projection of 51,000. Virginia DRPT was ready to start investing in intercity passenger rail, and this was the initial pilot project. Supporters were hopeful, but the less than ideal schedule for the daily train made some nervous

Now, actual ridership has blown these projections out of the water. Halfway through the year, the service had already exceeded both revenue and ridership goals for the whole year. As more people become aware of the new transportation option, monthly ridership growth is set to accelerate. March was the best month yet.

This exciting news prompts me to speculate about where this trend may be leading. So I'd like to engage in a little futurism here, some hypothetical storytelling. If I turn out to be right, I can point to this timestamped post and claim prophetic powers, and if I'm wrong this all will just float off into blogging oblivion where it belongs. So here goes ...

After the three-year pilot project is complete, DRPT decides to implement another daily trip leaving Charlottesville around 8:30 in the morning, as the Piedmont Rail Coalition is now recommending. Fares can be lowered on both services, because the high ridership levels easily offset the fixed fuel and labor costs of operation. With the help of expanded federal funding in the next Transportation Reauthorization bill, rail alignments are updated throughout the corridor, allowing for increased speed and reliability. All of these improvements together kick off a virtuous cycle of substantial growth in ridership and more options.

Charlottesville is able to tap into new economic possibilities just pushed over the tipping point. AMTRAK installs Wi-Fi on all services, allowing workers to be productive during the trip back and forth. Firms from DC decide to open a smaller office in downtown Charlottesville, where they can tap into the labor market and establish a connection with the University. Some consulting firms base themselves out of Charlottesville completely.  Many employees work remotely from Charlottesville, traveling to the main offices in DC a couple times a week, and businesses like OpenSpace thrive by catering to them. Tourism grows, as urban residents in DC realize they can get away to Charlottesville for a weekend without needing a car. The Landmark hotel gets built. At the same time, stronger connections are made between the downtowns of Charlottesville and Lynchburg.

A major debate arises over what to do with the existing train station. One side says the old station on West Main is no longer large enough to meet demand for parking, and a new station needs to be built in Albemarle County north of town. This would serve as a park-and-ride for automobile commuters throughout the region. The other side insists on expanding the facilities in place. They advocate building a parking garage and greatly bolstering local transit options to grant more access to the station without a car. This goes on for many years, and in the meantime the market responds by spurring a large amount of building activity right around the station. City planners carefully zone the area to encourage attractive transit-oriented development. Before long, many people start walking to the station anyway, and AMTRAK decides to keep it in the center of town.

The Charlottesville metro area, which had started as a rail town and then became a highway town, is gradually transformed into a rail-highway hybrid town. New tracks a laid between Richmond and Staunton, allowing additional east-west connections. Motorcars are still used to access much of the existing uses outside of urban areas and concentrated corridors, but a robust regional network of transit is also built that spreads out from the core train station. Walkable hubs are grown around stations throughout the US-29 corridor up to Hollymead/Airport and Ruckersville, and westward to Crozet. All of the new compact development relieves pressure on growth in the rural areas, thus the primary political challenge shifts from stopping sprawl to maintaining adequate affordable housing in the growth areas.


Eric Orozco said...

Nice vision. I hope it pans out!

I like the thought of opening up the option of Charlottesville as an home base for new jobs tied to the DC market. But...will a parking garage feed the drive to urbanize around the station, or encourage sprawl around Charlottesville?

Gary Trolley said...

Local rail transit can extend the economic growth along a corridor connected to the train station. I feel it is much more efficient to run a street car than it is to put money into a parking garage.

Daniel Nairn said...

Oh, I'm not sure what I think about a parking garage either. I just think, realistically, that may be the kind of compromise that a train station would end up with. Of course, if it did have to be built, it would be in addition to transit projects like a streetcar.

gilipollas said...

This can't truly have success, I feel this way.

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