Community Advocates Fight To Keep Amtrak Station Near Virginia State University In Ettrick

by | Mar 28, 2019 | VIRGINIA POLITICS

A federal proposal to move the Ettrick Amtrak station to Colonial Heights has caused concern from both Congressional representatives and community advocates from Virginia State University.

For over 30 years, Amtrak has served the Petersburg area through the train station located at 3516 South Street in Ettrick. A small community just west of Petersburg, Ettrick is the home of Virginia State University; unsurprisingly, the Amtrak station there sees quite a bit of traffic each year from VSU students commuting to and from the university. But a new federal proposal suggests that the Ettrick station should be closed in order to build a new, larger Amtrak station in Colonial Heights, and this proposal has raised quite a bit of concern among community advocates in the area.

“To move the station out of walking distance for the students who really comprise a high percentage of the annual ridership . . .would be disadvantageous not only to our students, but to Amtrak itself,” said Rev. Delano Douglas, the campus minister at VSU and a leader of the Concerned Citizens of Ettrick, a community advocacy group.

The Amtrak station in Ettrick was built in 1955 and is located at the southeastern end of Chesterfield County. According to data from Amtrak, the station had an annual ridership of over 30,000 in 2017, and collected a revenue of nearly $2 million.

Several years ago, the Federal Railroad administration found that the current station at Ettrick is out of compliance with federal code and is too small for its annual ridership. The agency then proposed building a new, larger Amtrak station to accommodate future growth. In addition, the agency also has future plans to add a high-speed rail system at the station, which would could connect riders to areas such as North Carolina and Washington D.C.

Ettrick train station. Via Railfan Guides US

The Federal Railroad Association explored four sites for the new station — Dinwiddie, Petersburg, Chesterfield, and Colonial Heights. However, the debate has been focused upon two sites: the existing station in Ettrick, and Boulevard in Colonial Heights. If the new station is built in Colonial Heights (or another new location), the Ettrick station will be shut down.

After conducting an extensive 563 page study, the agency suggested that Colonial Heights is the “preferred alternative” for the new station. According to the study, this site — located along Boulevard, the main north-south thoroughfare in Colonial Heights — is best suited to handle ridership growth and is conveniently located along U.S. Route 1 and I-95. If relocated to this site, the station would serve the Tri-Cities of Colonial Heights, Hopewell, and Petersburg.

However, advocacy groups and community leaders in Chesterfield County and at VSU are fighting against the relocation, concerned that the relocation of the station would both deprive the historic village of Ettrick of a valuable source of revenue and negatively impact VSU students who depend on the station for transportation. The advocates would prefer that the government either update the existing Ettrick station or build a new one at the station’s current location.

While the federal study claimed that the Boulevard site is still near VSU, the Concerned Citizens of Ettrick stated that the increased distance between the Colonial Heights location and VSU would be harmful to students.

“There are a number of students who use foot traffic to get from campus to the station and who use the station frequently to get home during breaks and other forms of travel,” said Douglas. The current Ettrick station is located less than a mile from VSU’s campus, while the proposed location in Colonial Heights would be around three miles away.

Speaking to the Prince George Journal, VSU President, Makola Abdullah, Ph.D., said that “roughly 1,000 underclassmen, approximately 20 percent” of VSU students routinely use the Ettrick station for transportation.

According to Douglas, if the government were to move the station to a new location they would be doing so at the expense of students who use the station to get back and forth to their educational institution.

“If there were no other reason to keep [the station] where it is, access to education, I think, should be a prime issue for discussion.”

The proximity of the site in Boulevard to major transportation routes such as I-95 was an important factor in the FRA’s conclusion that Colonial Heights would be the best location for the new station.

Douglas pointed out that, unlike those who are driving to the station, freshman students at VSU are not allowed to have cars on campus, and therefore, it would be costly and inconvenient for them to travel to the Colonial Heights location.

“Persons who are going to get to the station in automobiles are not going to be disadvantaged by the additional mile of transportation that it takes to get to the Ettrick site,” Douglas said. “However, when you have students who are walking to the station, they don’t drive, so they will be disenfranchised. What you do is you add an expense to students who either need to Uber, Lyft, or taxi their way to the station if it’s in Colonial Heights.”

Douglas also stated that keeping the station in Ettrick could also spur economic growth in the area. He said that the updated station might promote increased community involvement,  produce “concession fights” and encourage new businesses to move to the area.

“[It is] an opportunity for people to have interaction with [Ettrick] village if they get off,” said Douglas. “That could potentially create some economic impetus there.”

Building a new station at Ettrick is estimated to be the cheapest plan, projected to cost $9 million. At other sites, the project could cost up to $17 million. In an effort to block relocation, Chesterfield County has already committed to spending the $7 million to $9 million needed to build the new station if the federal government agrees to keep it in Ettrick, according to the Chesterfield Observer.

Douglas said that the Concerned Citizens of Ettrick have received a “tremendous level of support” on this issue. Several governmental officials such as U.S. Congressman Donald McEachin and Senator Tim Kaine have voiced their support for keeping the station at its current location in Ettrick.

In a letter to the FRA, Kaine cited several “factors” that support the redevelopment of the current Ettrick station.

“These include the cost savings of maintaining an existing station and a proven ridership, as well as the higher costs of building new stations and lower levels of committed local funding for other discussed sites,” stated Kaine.

McEachin expressed his opposition to the station’s relocation in multiple letters.

“I have repeatedly, publicly stated my support . . . for the Amtrak station to remain in Ettrick,” stated McEachin. “This Ettrick station serves the campus community of Virginia State University, the service men and women at Fort Lee and the residents of the village of Ettrick with an ever-increasing ridership.”

“I hope the Federal Rail Administration will review and revisit this issue,” stated McEachin, “and join us in helping Ettrick and the surrounding area become the thriving community it can be.”

Ettrick train station, viewed from the platform. By Christopher Ziemnowicz, Own work, Public Domain/via Wikimedia

While the county awaits the final decision of the Federal Rail Administration (FRA), it has submitted grant proposals to update the current station, in order to increase safety and bring it into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The proposal is still under review by the state department of rail and public transportation.

“I think any area involvement in that station is a plus,” said Douglas. “The station has served the village for a number of years, and again, it has been the location that has prompted growth in ridership.”

According to Douglas, the station in Ettrick is “a source of pride” for the Chesterfield Community as well as a vital resource.

“It’s a major gateway or pathway to transportation to other areas,” said Douglas. “Nothing wrong with keeping that located in the village of Ettrick.”

Top photo via Railfan Guides US

Jayla McNeill

Jayla McNeill

Jayla McNeill is a journalism student at Virginia Commonwealth University and contributor to RVA Magazine. Her writing includes politics, diversity, art, culture, and social issues.

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