The Destruction of Ashland

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The following is a letter written by Roseanne Shalf to various regulatory and government agencies. Given that technology is moving so fast it seems highly doubtful that the mid-1950s proposal from the DRPT will actually happen. But, as the letter points out, the destruction of our town is happening now.

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Dear DC2RVA,

I am a resident of Ashland, Virginia. I have researched and written much about the history of Ashland including its historical relationship with the railroad companies that travel through the center of town. I have also attended most of the meetings regarding the third rail options for years now, including the most recent ones in 2017. I am very familiar with the Section 106 study done on Ashland’s historic properties. I think that the DC2RVA group must have been surprised about the strong community reaction to the third rail through town, and you should take the wisdom of the community very seriously.

I oppose the option to put a third rail through town for a number of reasons. A few are below.

#1. THE FRA DECISION WILL HAVE IMPACTS IMMEDIATELY: The biggest and most immediate impact will be simply the decision by FRA to choose the option to add a third rail through town, even though it is scheduled for 15 years down the road. The town’s economy will begin to crash now, not just in 15 years or during the construction that will close Center Street for several years. I cannot say that strongly enough. It has happened in large cities, and even years after construction, the economy struggled to repair itself. But Ashland is a small town. We are constantly struggling to build up our public image. A 15-year lead-up, a 3 year shutdown of our historic downtown, and the impact on our primary employer Randolph-Macon College, will destroy the town for decades and it may never recover. It doesn’t matter how pretty we can make it look after construction. The economic scare has already started. Homeowners who want to sell are having difficulty getting contracts. This is especially true for homes facing the tracks. Shop owners are wary of longterm commitments and are beginning to look for a way out of the commitments they already have. That will intensify over the next 15 years should FRA choose the 3rd rail through town. Such a massive project as the one proposed for a small town like Ashland, with so few commercial, residential, and tourist corridors, cannot be compared to a project on a city that has many such corridors. Ashland WILL LIKELY NEVER RECOVER. We have too few resources.

So, if there is a better alternative, such as the Hyperloop or streamlined ways for deep-bore tunnel construction, that are developed in the intervening 15 years, it will be too late for Ashland. If the decision is made now for a third rail through town, Ashland will have collapsed. How can you contemplate such a project for this town?

#2. THE 1836 RIGHT OF WAY IS TOO SMALL: The current right of way for the rails through Ashland was established in 1836 and the town developed around it. The oldest and most historic part of town is along that current right of way. The oldest shade trees line the track. A third rail would require demolition of some of the houses and businesses, demolition of all the 100-year old street trees along both sides of the track, and it would place the rails so close to many homes and businesses that they would be rendered uninhabitable—useless. Moreover, the development over the last 181 years has been so dense that there is no way to move the buildings back 10-20 feet. Is it really worth it to choose this option? The lawsuits would be unending, would cost the government many millions, and would create longterm delays.

#3. THERE WILL BE NO WAY TO ACCESS MID-BLOCK HOMES AND BUSINESSES DURING THE 3-YEAR CONSTRUCTION PERIOD: The town was laid out formally in 1854, (please see attached map) although we believe that some buildings were constructed before then. The lots along the tracks were between 8 and 30 acres each, and over the intervening years they have been subdivided into smaller, different size lots. That created lots of different depths so that today there is not straight line along the backs of the lots. (See the Hanover gis site, attached, or access it at http://www.hanovercountygis.org) Thus, there are no alleyways behind the buildings along the tracks. To try to create alleyways today to access the mid-block buildings from the rear would require demolition of even more buildings in the historic district. To create a temporary rail or temporary travel lanes along the fronts of buildings along the right of way in order to create access to mid-block buildings would bring the car lanes or tracks within feet of some of front porches and doors—For three years or more with no break! The project cannot be phased.

#4. THE SECTON 106 STUDY REVEALED BUILDINGS THAT ARE POTENTIALLY ELIGIBLE FOR INDIVIDUAL LISTINGS. The DHR and the consultants who completed the study marked a number of buildings along the tracks in the business district of the Ashland Historic District, the residential part of the Historic District, and on the Randolph-Macon Historic Campus that are potentially eligible for individual status. They were designated as potentially eligible for individual listing because they are an unusually intact example of Greek Revival, High Victorian, or Colonial Revival architecture, or an important event took place, or an important person lived there during formative years, or an important architect designed a building. As an example, our 1923 Train Station, designed by W. Duncan Lee of Richmond, would be demolished to make way for the enlarged right of way.

We are justifiabley proud of our Ashland Historic District and the Randolph-Macon Historic Campus, and we have been planning for some time to create a separate historic district in the Berkleytown area to the north of the campus that is traditionally an African-American neighborhood to tell that part of the state and national story. These historic districts and the buildings that are potentially eligible for individual listings are not only fun nostalgically, but they tell a state and national story as well. They are serious history. Aren’t historic districts and buildings elevated to individual historic listings supposed to protect our state and national history?

#5. THE 100-YEAR OLD STREETSCAPE WILL BE DESTROYED: We have also pointed out that the 100-year old streetscape along the tracks would have to be demolished if a third rail on the surface or in a trench or in a soft-earth tunnel were to be constructed through town so that utilities could be reinstalled. It would take another 100 years to regrow those oak and maple shade trees, to say nothing of certain trees that hold a special history. As an example, the oak in the front yard of 604 S Center Street was one of a pair. In the 1870s, the family balanced a plank between the two trees to create a bench for Col. Pumphry, wounded during the Civil War, to watch the trains go by and to talk to his neighbors as they strolled by. The plank is long gone, but the tree remains. The old oaks in front of the former Ashland Baptist Church were likely planted when the church was built in 1859. Early pictures show them. Such old trees are not only pleasant to view, but the also tell a history, they soften the landscape, and they lower the ambient temperature. Not many towns in Virginia have so many large old trees that have survived so long. ( See photos of the streetscape below)

#6. THE TECHNOLOGY THAT FRA IS USING NOW IS FROM THE 1950s: We all know how fast technology changes. In transportation, countries like Canada, France, South Korea, and other nations are embracing new technology called Hyperloop for for both freight and passenger systems. Elon Musk is experimenting with a deep bore machine that would reduce costs and disruptions in our transportation system and in the social impacts. (Please see this link: https://iansutton.com/downloads/Hyperloop-Standards.pdf or Wikipedia explanation https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyperloop or Wired.com’s article on the new deep bore machine from Elon Musk’s The Boring Company at http://www.wired.co.uk/article/elon-musk-tunnel-boring) The cost is decreasing on both of those technologies. Imagine a deep bore tunnel under I-95, which is fairly straight, has plenty of right of way, and takes a train through Akka yard. It would not even require using potential future traveling lanes. Or a tunnel through the land west of Ashland, that would protect the historic farms, allow farmers to get to their fields, and would eliminate the need for and costly lawsuits related to eminent domain. Why are we still planning on using mid-20th century technology for a project that will be built mid-21st century? Shouldn’t FRA be looking at these new technologies before planning this gigantic, expensive, 3rd rail from DC to RVA, let alone through Ashland, Virginia? Innovative projects can attract donations from major private foundations like the Gates Foundation. Perhaps FRA could use this corridor as a model for the rest of the country.

Using new technology would eliminate costly lawsuits related to eminent domain.The social upheval would be nil. The project would raise support for rail projects where there was none. And the cost might be defrayed by foundation grants.

Thank you for paying attention to our comments. Please don’t put a third rail through Ashland, Virginia.

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Draft EIS. Comment #10: The Boring Company

The Boring Company hyperloop

The following will be submitted as a comment to the DRPT.

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In previous posts I have pointed out that Elon Musk’s insight regarding transportation is that we are constrained by available real estate. The key advantage of hyperloop is that the low pressure tubes can be installed along existing rights of way with minimal disruption to the local communities. The fact that the capsules move at 600 mph is attractive, but it is not the prime reason for installing hyperloop.

In the context of our own “high speed” rail project my vision has been that we install the hyperloop tubes along the I-95 median. The capsules would be used for long-distance passengers and for high value freight. Our existing tracks — which would not need to be expanded — would be used for low value freight, such as coal, and for stopping passenger trains, such as we have now.

Needless to say, Musk is ahead of us. If we are to move into the third dimension we should also look at going down as well as up.

During the early discussions to do with the DRPT project the idea of a tunnel under Ashland was summarily dismissed as being too expensive. Yet, once more, Musk is turning things around. This year he formed a new company — the Boring Company — to come up with ways of creating tunnels more quickly and at lower cost than traditional methods. And now he has a contract: a tunnel between New York and Washington for hyperloop pods, with the first ten miles to be dug being in the Baltimore, MD area.

It would appear to be a simple matter to use the same technology for building a tunnel under Hanover County. Why is this option not being considered given that costs are being reduced so dramatically?