Why Richmond doesn’t need a new train station on the Boulevard

Dr. Trani's "New Downtown" looks awesome you guys!
Dr. Trani’s “New Downtown” looks awesome you guys!

Famous unemployed persons Dr. Eugene Trani, former president of VCU, and John Watkins, former Virginia senator from Powhatan, have checked in with us through the pages of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and boy oh boy, do they ever have some thoughts for us about where “downtown” is, how people use trains, and how much parking is required for everything (SPOILER: INFINITE!). Specifically, Dr. Trani has swooped in once more to make a sad case for building some sort of magical new train station on Boulevard rather than sending trains to, like, the very pretty train station we already have downtown.

I think this is a super un-smart idea, and it’s an idea that people like for really bad reasons.

So I couldn’t restrain myself. Below is my abridged line-to-line response to “Why Richmond needs a new train station on the Boulevard”, which is the title of the opinion piece but not a thing that is true.

The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation is winding up a Tier II Environmental Impact Statement for the future of rail transportation on the 123-mile corridor from Washington to Centralia, which is 16 miles south of Richmond

This is mostly accurate! OK! We’re off to a good start here, with the Recitation of the Things.

There has been much publicity about how to get the trains through Hanover and Ashland. There has been much less discussion about the train station, or stations, in Richmond

That’s because everyone but you and miscellaneous other white dudes is pretty sure we should have passenger trains go to our passenger train station that already exists.

The federal government appears to want both station locations, and its one-size-fits-all regulations may prevent an objective consideration of the true, long-term economic opportunities available to our entire region

I like to think that Dr. Trani and Mr. Watkins sat down in front of a Ouija board and asked it to tell them what the US Federal Government really wants, and after a long session of sputtering, it spelled out to them, “the US Federal Government, an entity with thoughts and feelings which is hamstrung by one-size-fits-all regulations, whatever that means, desires passenger rail service to serve both Staples Mill Road and Main Street Station.”

The current study started with 15 possible station locations for Richmond but quickly narrowed the study to four locations: Main Street, Broad Street, the Boulevard, and Staples Mill. There are seven possible alternatives, with four being full-service single station options at each of the above locations and three being split service between Main Street and Staples Mill

This is correct! You can check out the seven service alternatives for Richmond yourself.

There should be only one station in the Richmond area. This would be similar to the other major cities from Washington to Boston and would improve the times of the trip from Richmond to Washington.

Fact Check: Boston has approximately one million stations (Route 128, Back Bay, South Station, and North Station), and it’s a pain in the ass. You literally can’t take a train from Maine to New York because of this. But sure, I’m with you on the principle. One station is definitely best. One station makes it easier, simpler, and more cost-effective to connect intercity passenger rail with frequent public transit and other local transportation services.

Only a Broad Street or Main Street station location will benefit immediately from Pulse BRT service scheduled to begin in October of 2017. This kind of connection to frequent, reliable mass transit is critical. We can’t afford to waste precious, potentially revenue-generating real estate on deeply underperforming assets like lots of parking. But oh? What’s this?

It should have excellent highway access and significant parking, if we are serious about getting people out of their cars and off I-95

OK. Stop. Garbage. If we’re serious about getting people out of their cars, we aren’t sending them to the train station in their cars in the first place. They’re taking transit, they’re riding a bike, they’re getting dropped off by a friend or a taxi or whatever.

And I’m gonna show you this graphic this one time, but I need you to remember it every single time this piece barfs up another superlative adjective followed by the word “parking:” if “parking” is a thing that we need at Main Street Station, well, there’s definitely room for it. Here’s all the land area being used for parking in the immediate vicinity of Main Street Station today:
mss-parking

If anything, Main Street Station area needs to go on a serious parking diet. So yes, “we need a Boulevard Station because Main Street Station can’t have parking” is nonsense. Moving on.

Second, it should be located in the “downtown” area, though modern definitions of what makes up “downtown” are changing. Unfortunately, the city and the federal government rely on a 1950s definition of where Richmond’s downtown actually is. Shockoe Bottom’s recovery since the floods is impressive, but it is no longer the “downtown” part of our city and it is not the true cultural or employment center of our region.

Wait. Back. Up. The. Truck. Downtown Richmond isn’t Downtown? Where on earth is Downtown Richmond? Who moved it?

It’s a funny thing about “1950s definition of where downtown actually is.” If you had a downtown in the 1950s, well, your downtown is still there today. Sure, there are good chances that, in a healthy city and region, other centers of significant activity have developed. But downtown is right where it’s always been: downtown.

Just check out these spiffy pics from Google Earth and ask one question: “Which of these places looks, today, like an Actual Downtown?”

whichisdowntown

Job concentrations exist in an oblong, east-west axis between the I-95 James River bridge and I-195

Oh, that’s much clearer. Downtown Richmond is an oblong, east-west axis between two interstate highways, and it is this thing because “job concentrations” exist within this oblong.

A three and a half mile stretch of turf covering over 7 square miles of area. Well, OK, but, what you’re speaking of isn’t “downtown.” Trust me. You will be mercilessly mocked, and deservedly, for telling a city resident that your “favorite downtown restaurant” is in Carytown.

Downtowns are a special kind of thing. Though decent-sized cities have multiple business districts, and even multiple cores, in America your downtown is a specific core that is the historical center of commerce and government. In Richmond, this actual downtown is growing rapidly for the same reasons that so many others are. It already has good urban fabric, walkable streets, and regular transit service, and, of course, a very heavy concentration of jobs.

And downtowns aren’t geographically huge, either. Even in the ten largest cities in America, the most sprawling downtown core measures in at just about two square miles. Most are much smaller:

downtown-size

Which makes the assertion that this vast chunk of Richmond is “downtown” look positively farcical. Check out The Oblong East-West Axis overlaid with LA’s humongously sprawly downtown:

tranisize

Claiming such a vast swath of territory as “downtown” shows a deep lack of understanding of how cities function, what they are, or how they work.

This is the true and rapidly redeveloping downtown of our entire region, and neither Main Street Station nor Staples Mill Station serve it or help this emerging region core grow.

Here’s a quick story, dude: according to Better Housing Coalition, which just announced a substantial investment in transit-oriented development in Scott’s Addition, there are about 1,200 apartment units total in the neighborhood. That sounds like a lot of apartments!

But with all the activity in Scott’s Addition, maybe it would be easy to miss, but you know where in Richmond added 1,350 new units in just the last year alone?

Oh! That’d be Downtown! Like, actual Downtown Richmond. Not whatever this thing is.

Finally, the location should contribute to RVA’s efforts for economic development, with a particular focus on recruiting and retaining young professionals to live and work in our area.

Major Spoiler Alert: You will read this meaningless phrase, “young professionals,” used several more times, for no apparent reason. Get your shot glasses ready, we’re making it a drinking game, OK?

Main Street Station is an iconic building that has had more than $80 million of renovations and is the choice of the city of Richmond to be the single train station for Richmond. But it has many problems, including being in a very congested area with little or no parking.

What does “very congested area” mean? Short Pump is a very congested area.

“Congestion” is not a thing that pedestrians really experience in cities our size, so when someone says “congested” in Richmond, I assume they mean “sometimes I have to wait in my car through a stoplight cycle before I can go to the next intersection.” Good transit, biking, and walking infrastructure obviates the need to worry about that.

As for the thing where we’re working through $80 million in renovations for Main Street Station right now: that actually does matter. Make no mistake: the Boulevard Station option absolutely means closing Main Street Station. No more train service there. Period. It’s right there in the plans:

doesmeanclose

Eh, maybe we can use it as an ice skating rink if we do this Boulevard Station, right? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

It also has major rail infrastructure problems that would be very costly to remedy

The entire point of this whole process is that we are going to spend money to remedy rail infrastructure problems.

The recent attempt to relocate the baseball stadium adjacent to Main Street Station should be a message to us all about the conflicting passions and histories of the Shockoe Bottom area

If you took away the message “it is impossible to do anything in the Shockoe Bottom area ever,” you weren’t paying even the slightest bit of attention.

Staples Mill is not “downtown” and even with the announced parking expansion would continue to have parking problems. It is not an attractive option. The area around the train station has done little for economic development, and it may be many decades before its surrounding low-density, strip retail development could actually power the entire region.

Agreed. Go on.

And it will not help recruit young professionals to live and work in our area

YOUNG PROFESSIONALS *glug*

Also, Staples Mill is not easily accessible from the southern or western quadrants of our region, nor is it served by transit

Whereas Main Street Station is, because it is downtown, at the confluence of a zillion major highways and surface streets, due very soon to be served by high-quality rapid transit, and even easy walking distance over nice streets on a tight grid to hotels, restaurants, and all kinds of other nice stuff. On the Boulevard, you can get off a train and walk to … well, I guess Starbucks is only a 15 minute walk away, and it has a drive-through. And there’s a Wawa coming. So those are pretty urban amenities.

In contrast, the Boulevard has many positive features to become a signature entrance into RVA, particularly if a “starchitect,” a well-known architect, would design the station

Oh! A “starchitect!” Maybe we could hire the award-winning firm responsible for some of Philadelphia’s most beloved institutional structures. Doesn’t that sound cool? Oh, wait. That’s already been done for us! The Seaboard Air Line and Chesapeake and Ohio hired Wilson Brothers to design an outstanding, landmark train station — in 1901. We call it “Main Street Station” today, and it already exists.

The Boulevard has great highway access and plenty of room for extensive parking

Remember this when later on, these dudes suggest their Boulevard station will, quote, “get people out of their cars,” because they really mean “get people out of their cars once they arrive at this train station and then get them immediately back into them when they return from wherever.”

It is located at an Interstate highway exit

Main Street Station is also located at an interstate highway exit — a series of them, in fact. This is not an actual differentiating factor. They are both at interstate highway exits. Stop trying to make “fetch” happen, Trani. It’s not going to happen.

and is already the site of many popular destinations, with the Science Museum, the Children’s Museum, the Bow Tie Cinemas complex, and The Diamond ballpark already attracting more than 1.5 million annual visitors

Riddle me this: What’s the first thing I want to do after I have made an intercity rail journey from a different city? Do I want to schlep all my baggage and go to a museum or see a movie? Do I want to go to a minor league baseball game with my wheelie suitcase wedged between my legs?

Or is it more likely that I want to go to my hotel via frequent, easy-to-use rapid transit, and then take a nap?

The emergence of Scott’s Addition as a major center for business, housing, and entertainment is only the first step of the development of the Boulevard, which should be rebranded as RVA’s Diamond

OK, so this is cute. I see what you’re saying. So, like, we called the baseball stadium The Diamond out of a desperate lack of imagination, because a “diamond” is the shape of the field on which the game baseball is played, but the idea here is, maybe we can use “Diamond” to mean “very nice, precious thing” instead.

Which is a pretty generous thing to call a low-slung assortment of warehouses, body shops, and self-storage units with no sidewalks.

It’s true that Scott’s Addition is growing. But to suggest that it’s a few rehabs of low-density buildings away from rivaling downtown for urbanity is just silly.

Combining the Boulevard station with the nearby Greyhound station could turn the Boulevard into an accessible transportation hub for the entire region, and a destination for travelers from Alexandria to Norfolk

Do you not believe that Greyhound service could be delivered at Main Street Station for some reason? The high-volume intercity bus service Megabus is currently operating a brisk business from the Main Street Station parking lot. Bring the Greyhound service downtown too! This is good for everyone!

The development that would occur at RVA’s Diamond would be dramatic. Retail, housing, entertainment, and business would flock to RVA’s new downtown

“RVA’s New Downtown” sure sounds appealing. The word “new” is right in there, and man, new things sure do outperform old things, don’t they? Except that RVA already has a downtown, which is conveniently located Downtown. Main Street Station is there!

RVA’s Diamond would be especially attractive for young professionals

YOUNG PROFESSIONALS SHOUTOUT NUMBER THREE! DRINK!

But seriously, when people say “young professionals,” it’s kind of an old person dog whistle for “educated, white collar white people that don’t require extensive public services.”

We could add a dozen more points, but suggest we just stop here and ask two simple questions: Could a Main Street station or a Staples Mill station support anything like these benefits?

Staples Mill? No. Main Street? Yes.

Would a Main Street station or a Staples Mill station do anything to get people out of cars and onto more sustainable modes of transportation?

Staples Mill? No. Main Street? Yes.

We believe that the answer to both questions is no

I don’t think you read your own questions very carefully.

If we do nothing, we will wind up with a two-station option of Staples Mill and Main Street. Only if we stand up and demand that the Boulevard be seriously considered will this great possibility occur.

Well, there you have it. We have a great possibility that can occur, of locating a new passenger rail station, designed by a Starchitect, for Young Professionals, in a New Downtown, “RVA’s Diamond,” where it will be disconnected from rapid transit and Actual Downtown and surrounded by just oodles and oodles of parking, guaranteeing that it will be just as sad as Staples Mill in perpetuity because it won’t generate any activity outside of its walls.

Where do we sign up, Richmond?

All kvetching aside, and I did a lot of kvetching

Main Street Station should absolutely be the station for Richmond. It’s actually downtown, it’s actually going to be served by excellent public transit, and it’s actually already a beautiful train station that exists.

All the arguments against it, and for the alternatives, come from a profoundly anti-urbanist view of Richmond’s future that continues to assume the vast majority of people will, in perpetuity, originate all trips from a car, and that we should make our development decisions to accommodate cars first and people second.

That’s not how we’re going to grow, y’all. It just ain’t.

You should keep up with the DC2RVA Rail Project closely as they work through the Tier II EIS process. It’s important work!

And if you want a robust Richmond, I’d encourage you to submit a comment supporting Main Street Station as Richmond’s single passenger rail hub. It’s the right thing to do.

13 thoughts on “Why Richmond doesn’t need a new train station on the Boulevard

  1. You forgot to mention possible financial ties to the Boulevard redevelopment that those two men probably have. Remember the Boulevard is going to be massively redeveloped soon. They want to make that area the new downtown… of course they want the station there! But is that the best thing for the whole city? I agree with you that it’s not. However, why does building a station at Boulevard completely rule out the Main Street Station existence? A small but modern station at Boulevard that does not have every train stopping there would be a great combination with the Main Street Station. Let the higher speed trains skip it on the way to Main Street.

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  2. I agree with you that expanded and improved service to main street station should be the main priority for this project, but I’m curious about something. You call Trani out on his assertion that most major cities have one major train station, but don’t dig into the issue too deeply. In DC, some Amtrak trains stop at L’enfant Plaza and Alexandria (which is practically an extension of DC in some respects). In Baltimore, many (all?) of the Acela trains stop BWI as well as downtown, effectively offering a county/city setup not entirely unlike the setup we have here in Richmond. His argument also totally overlooks that most of the cities he is referencing have robust regional commuter rail stations (LIRR, Metro North in NYC, for example) with multiple stations within city limits, which obviate the need for multiple large amtrak specific/exclusive stations.

    I guess my question is: Do you think we should keep the staples mill Service, or try to consolidate everything to downtown? Is it acceptable if this is done piece meal, or do you think it needs to be done quickly? Why?

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    1. hi lee,

      the one thing not in favor of main st station being the main richmond station is that it is not on the main north-south rail line.

      trains running north / south of richmond have to detour onto east-west rail lines utilized heavily for freight traffic.

      if every north-south bound train has to detour to east-west lines to get downtown, this is going to delay a lot of rail traffic.

      i’m surprised nobody brought this up.

      now, if CSX works out something so that there is an extra spur running from the north-south line to main st, then when DC-RVA high speed rail becomes possible, it should indeed stop downtown.

      but – the staples mill station is a nightmare to enter/exit and has all the charm of a cinderblock.

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  3. I would add that Uber and self-driving cars will make parking issues insignificant.

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    1. I completely agree. Most major auto producers have already projected massive (30%) reductions in sales over the next decade for the same reason. Parking requirements will drop tremendously.

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  4. Interesting analysis, but you should refine your map of downtown parking to exclude state-owned lots, since they won’t be available during the week ( that’s where state employees park). If those are removed, and substantial parking still exists, then you’ve strengthened your argument.

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  5. I agree wholeheartedly! The Main Street Station is the best for those of us who train often.

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  6. The nefarious Eugene Trani and John Watkins must feast on the flesh of young professionals to survive.

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  7. Thanks for your lively rebuttal of the suggestion that Boulevard needs a train station. One of the major problems of this plan is its attempt to undo the past: that is, when our passenger rail service agency closed many of its downtown stations in 1975 in the misguided belief that the way to lure commuters was to build stations in Outer Burbia.

    People tend to get in their cars, though, and keep driving. The region then was bequeathed the polyvinyl Amshack in Staples Mill in grudging recognition that some people actually ride trains. That station now consistently numbers the greatest boarding and disembarking passengers of all others in the state.

    This left both Main Street and Broad Street stations bereft. Until the 1950s, Broad Street was our central rail hub. Main Street took up slack in for other directions. Lost to purpose, the sat and rotted until Broad Street’s domed glory received rescue from the Sen. Ed Willey and the state and became the science museum.

    And thus we should rip up Boulevard for a train station because …no transit goes to Staples Mill? How about some regional cooperation here and run a regular service to-and-from? This requires more diplomacy than money, though, some friendly corporations could make bucket loads building yet another contemporary perjury against architecture. Much as it annoys me, I’d rather the Staples Mill site undergo a massive overhaul with the caveat that a transit component be built in.

    And then fix the knot in the Acca Yards which were left to freight after Broad Street closed and why we’re in this situation. Make it so a train heading out of Staples Mill to Main Street needn’t slow down to the speed of a car stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

    And another thing, a train cannot leave Main Street Station and head due south because of needed upgrades to the “Centralia Alignment.” The track is there — and not used much — but it’s designed for freight, not passenger, traffic. One estimate I received back in the early ‘Aughts was for about $30 million. That is today surely more expensive — but stop to consider than the now privately run Pocahontas Parkway was constructed for about $324 million and that extending Route 288 from Route 76 in Chesterfield County to I-64 in Goochland County clocked in at $319 million, transit improvement is not as staggering in numbers. And also highways must be maintained — from the asphalt to the median beds, from the overpasses to the comfort stations — so these are essentially underwritten on perpetuity by the governing entities that built them, or allowed them to be built. Enter tolls — which hasn’t exactly endeared the Pocahontas Parkway to anyone, much less the Downtown Distressway.

    By the way, Main Street Station’s first three improvement and expansion phases cost $51.6 million. In the same time frame, the dreaded Springfield Mixingbowl in Northern Virginia weighed in at a whopping $700 million.

    Let downtown be downtown. Keep Main Street Station, improve its connections and though I dislike the location, just figure out how to improve Staples Mill. Give the region a gateway to take pride in and which is relatively easy to get and out of.

    Leave your donation to my consulting fee in the box on the way out.

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  8. Remind me why only one station is needed? Send freight to Staples Mill; send passengers downtown to Main Street!

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  9. Great (and entertaining) article!

    However, all the arguments about whether to keep Main Street Station are quite likely a moot point — as my understanding from the high-speed rail folks is that we are practically required to keep Main Street station in the mix because it is the only locale that fulfills all the criteria the feds impose in order to qualify for further funding from them. (They have stipulations for serving the highest population densities, inner city and urban renewal considerations, etc.) Seems like Trani would know that, but . . . when you’ve got an ax to grind (and developer millions to make), I guess it serves his purposes to ignore it.

    Assuming that Main Street is a given, I personally am not averse to having a second or even third / subsidiary train station in town. If station size and footprint were kept within reasonable limits (and a large parking lot is NOT the idea here), the Boulevard location could serve as a useful access point for those living in more western and northern parts of town, giving them access to multiple modes of public transportation. A mixed-use option could incorporate a smaller train station, a Greyhound and GRTC bus hub, Uber / taxi spots, some restaurants, and some residential housing. (And trees!) And not every single train that leaves Main Street has to stop there.

    The same could potentially be done with the current Staples Mill location — though I would use whatever expanded space is created NOT to enlarge the stupid parking lot, but to provide similar kinds of walkable amenities a Boulevard station might — a devoted bus line going into town / hooking up with the Pulse, decent food places and/or shops, pleasant landscaping, etc.

    This is one of Richmond’s real opportunities to shape how our city will look and operate not just 20 but 50-75 years from now — and to build that vision around a 1990s notion of the personal automobile is not only short-sighted but, frankly, pretty stupid. The Tranis of this world turned VCU into an ugly, unfocused, sprawling mess; let’s not let them do the same to the rest of Richmond!

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  10. Great article – this should spike this idea of a Boulevard station by itself.

    I do think transit oriented planning around the Staples Mill Station can lead to a more urban environment there. Are Henrico’s planners that forward looking? At this time I doubt it.

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  11. Someone commented on a related topic that other cities successfully have more than one train station. Examples provided were Baltimore (Penn & BWI) and DC (Union & Alexandria).

    I disagree that these examples are successful. Baltimore is a prime example of how two stations have diminished value and caused a non-unified and poor solution. Accessibility at the BWI station is very poor for the region; it only slightly works for air travelers. The light rail does not go to the BWI station; and the nearest LR stop to Penn Sta is a three-block walk that is poorly lit at night. If Baltimore had (instead of building the BWI station) focused more on making Penn station easily accessible, they would have a more efficient solution for the region. Imagine multiple light rail lines intersecting at Penn station. Balt-2-DC commuters would not need to rely on the interstates to get to the train station, as they do today.

    As for Alexandria, this station sits directly on the line going south from Union station, and I don’t think people consider it a viable transport hub. When traveling via Amtrak, I don’t see many travelers getting on/off at Alexandria. Alexandria neither supports nor detracts from Union Station as a transport hub.

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