Upgrades desired for Charlottesville’s Union Station

As Charlottesville waits for federal and state rail officials to work out the details of a second dedicated daily train, some want Union Station to be upgraded to accommodate more passengers.

“We believe an upgraded station will improve service and make rail travel an even more attractive option for customers,” said Kimberly D. Woods, a spokeswoman for Amtrak.

“The station’s waiting room and parking lot must be able to accommodate an influx of customers as the demand for intercity passenger rail grows,” she said.

Union Station was built in 1885 and is located between the Downtown Mall and the University of Virginia at the intersection of two railroad lines. The station had an annual ridership of 134,485 in 2015, according to Amtrak.

The station was purchased from Norfolk Southern in 1997 by Union Station Partners LLC, a company owned by Allan Cadgene and the late Gabe Silverman. At the time, the City Council approved the use of $762,000 in federal transportation funds to renovate the station.

A former baggage handling area is now the ticket counter and waiting room. The main area of the station was converted into a restaurant.

The Northeast Regional began daily dedicated service in 2009 and has become one of Amtrak’s most profitable lines.

A second daily train from Lynchburg to Washington is expected to enter service in the coming years, though no clear timetable has been announced.

“We’re still working with our partners at Norfolk Southern on details of the service,” said Chris Smith, director of policy, communications and legislative affairs at the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation.

Funding to pay for new equipment and train cars for this new service came about as part of the Route 29 Solutions package of transportation improvements.

In all, the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation has set aside $31.6 million in capital improvements to expand the service.

Some in the community were worried the department would have the second train bypass Charlottesville out of concerns the train station couldn’t handle increased service.

In June, the department’s director, Jennifer Mitchell, wrote a letter to the president of the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce, Timothy Hulbert, to say the department would not halt service to Charlottesville for the second train.

“Given its business and student market, Charlottesville is an extremely important area for Amtrak passenger rail,” Mitchell wrote. “The second Lynchburg frequency project was born out of the spate of projects included in the Route 29 alternatives, which has the intended goal of reducing congestion on Route 29.”

However, Mitchell did acknowledge there are issues with the existing station that should be resolved.

“We intend to meet with City Council and city staff to reiterate the importance of ensuring reliable and accessible parking for Amtrak patrons and are hoping the city will provide us with some assurance that the appropriate steps will be taken,” she said.

Councilor Kristin Szakos said those negotiations have not yet begun.

“All we’ve done to this point is talked with representatives of the [Virginia Department of Transportation] and Amtrak to clarify what their needs are in order to move forward with the state’s funding of the second train from Lynchburg to Washington,” Szakos said.

The privately owned train station property has an assessed value of $ million. The company also owns part of the adjacent parking lot and the city owns the rest.

Earlier this year, the property was placed in the West Main East zoning district against the owner’s wishes. The new zoning category restricts the height of future buildings to 52 feet.

Cadgene said he is willing to cooperate.

“We are aware that the station needs to be expanded to accommodate increased traffic and perhaps additional train service if that comes about,” he said. “At this point, we are waiting to hear from Amtrak to learn what their needs are in terms of square footage.”

Rail activist Meredith Richards, a former Charlottesville city councilor, said she is hopeful stakeholders can work out a way to upgrade the station.

“The worst-case scenario would be that the status quo is maintained for another 20 years,” she said. “Let’s hope that’s not what happens.”

Richards said she would like to see a regional effort to push station upgrades ahead.

“There’s no reason why this should be left to the city alone to resolve,” Richards said. “It’s a regional service and there should be a regional solution.”

Richards said she would like to see a joint authority created to help operate the station, similar to the entity that runs the Charlottesville Albemarle Airport.

“The Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport Authority was established by the [Metropolitan Planning Organization] in 1984 and it’s worked very well since then,” Richards said. “It’s self-supporting through parking revenues and fees paid by the airlines and a lot of federal money.”

Hulbert said he believes the station does need to be upgraded, specifically to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“Several of those riders are people I’m dropping off and picking up,” Hulbert said. “It’s really uplifting to see the enormous number of people getting on and off that train in Charlottesville.”