The winning entry of a grassroots contest to develop a new design for the Belmont Bridge called for removing the structure entirely, but that idea may not win the approval of the two companies that own and operate the railroad that the bridge crosses over.

(Photo credit: Sabrina Schaeffer/The Daily Progress)

“We don’t like having at-grade crossings strictly from a safety perspective,” said Steve Powell, president of Buckingham Branch Railroad. “The rail industry as a whole is moving to eliminate as many crossings as possible.”

The Buckingham Branch Railroad leases the line from CSX, and Powell said both firms would have to grant permission for the crossing because it is their property.
But Daniel Bluestone , a University of Virginia professor of architecture and adviser to the Belmont UnAbridged entry in the Project Gait-Way contest, said he believes the city could compel CSX to allow the line to be crossed at-grade.
“The rail line was purchased and assembled by the C&O through public power of eminent domain granted by the Virginia legislature,” Bluestone said. “The same public power that created this rail corridor could be deployed by the city to create an at grade easement for a road crossing.”
Figures from the Virginia Department of Transportation indicate that vehicles pass over the bridge an average of 15,000 times a day. Bluestone said the winning design called for alternatives to help ease traffic flow for motorists.
“Belmont UnAbridged called for the widening of the Fourth Street underpass to accommodate two-way traffic and a series of electronic signals that could direct people to the bridge at Ridge Street and the underpass at Fourth,” Bluestone said.
Proponents of the no-bridge solution have argued that rail traffic is declining and will eventually dwindle because of lowering demand for coal. An average of nine trains use the line every day, according to data from the Federal Railroad Administration. Many of those are empty coal cars.
However, Powell said arguments that claim rail traffic will decrease are not true.
“In general, the rail industry had declined for many decades, but probably in the last 10 years we’ve had resurgence in traffic and industry,” Powell said. “Since 2009, there’s been a slump in transportation overall because the U.S economy took a shot in the wrong direction.”
Powell said another trend in the rail industry is toward double-stacking containers to get more freight per train. He said that will require bridges along the way to be at least 23 feet above the railroad.
“Pretty much any new structure going in place will have to meet that clearance,” Powell said.
Former city councilor and rail activist Meredith Richards said she believes freight will increase in the future because it is a more energy-efficient way to move goods around the country.
“Every [railroad] car that passes under that bridge is equivalent to several truckloads, Richards said. “Your average-length freight train is replacing 300 to 500 trucks.”
Amtrak’s east-west service, known as the Cardinal, passes through Belmont three times a week. Richards said there is a proposal to increase the frequency to seven days a week.
State law also may prevent an at-grade crossing.
“It is the policy of the commonwealth to limit the number of new public at-grade crossings and to eliminate unnecessary crossings,” reads a passage in the section of code that governs railroads.
The Belmont UnAbridged project also called for moving the nTelos Wireless Pavilion to another location in the city to open up more land for redevelopment. However, that would require the consent of the current tenant.
“We have a lease with the [ Charlottesville Economic Development Authority ] that gives us rights to the ground where the Pavilion is located,” said Kirby Hutto, the pavilion’s general manager.
The lease continues through Oct. 3, 2034, according to the city’s economic development director, Chris Engel .
Hutto said the pavilion’s management company would be willing to listen if the city chose to relocate the facility before then, but would strongly prefer it to stay in place.
“We would still look to protect the investment that we have made in our current location and I would imagine that the city would want to do the same,” Hutto said. “We feel that we have had a very successful partnership with them to date and we are very happy with our current location.”