City says fence along Corner railroad tracks is safety necessity, but some are skeptical

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One victim of a possible sexual assault was found along 15th Street near these railroad tracks. Photo: Max March One victim of a possible sexual assault was found along 15th Street near these railroad tracks. Photo: Max March

It’s a humid July day, and UVA fourth-year Henry Ilnicky just wants a sandwich.

From where he’s standing on 15th Street, Ilnicky could walk under a train trestle and through a third of a mile of busy Corner streets to reach his destination: Take It Away on Elliewood Avenue. But he saves over three blocks by simply stepping over sagging, knee-high ropes before crossing the train tracks behind the Corner parking lot.

For decades, UVA students and others traversing the Corner on foot have used the shortcut so frequently that a footpath is worn into the dirt embankment abutting the tracks. In a 30-minute span early one afternoon during UVA’s summer session, 89 people were observed crossing the train tracks.

They were all breaking the law, because the shorter route requires trespassing on railroad company property, and the city—with the support of UVA and local railroad companies—has obtained federal authorization and funding to construct a fence to prevent walkers from taking the shortcut. But with few accidents on record and little enforcement of the existing no trespassing rules, the impetus for the project, which comes with a pricetag of well over a third of a million dollars and seriously irks shortcut-taking students, is a little murky.

Ilnicky said blocking foot traffic across the tracks feels like an unnecessarily drastic move.

“I’ve crossed at all hours of the day, I’ve crossed with police officers in sight, and I’ve never received any pushback about taking that route,” he said. “Police officers regularly congregate in and around that parking lot, and no one has ever turned a head.”

It’s not just students who are raising concerns about the fence, and particularly about the source of funding to pay for it.

“The city shouldn’t jump in and say we’ll facilitate federal, state, or other dollars to subsidize what should be railroad dollars to protect that right of way,” said Peter Kleeman, a local attorney and transportation advocate. “You and I pay for that. If they’re content to leave it unprotected, then people are going to walk across it.”

The project has been on the books since 2010, when the city applied and was approved for a federal grant to build the permanent, seven-foot-high solid metal fence along a half-mile strip of the privately owned tracks running from University Avenue to Rugby Road. VDOT representative Stacy Londrey said the project qualified for $382,000 in federal and state funds, nearly all of it coming from the Highway Safety Improvement Program, which steers money toward bike and pedestrian safety measures.

Director of Neighborhood Development Services Jim Tolbert attributed the cost to the fence’s design and structure. “We’re not putting up chain link,” he said. “It’s not like hiring a fence company and saying ‘We want to go from point A to point B.’ It’s the design—that took money.”

So why is it still unbuilt? Tolbert said such projects take time. “When you apply for a grant from VDOT, you may be notified in one year that you are funded, but then you have to do environmental work,” he said. “You have to do plans. It doesn’t move quickly. It was never stopped for any reason. It’s been moving very very slowly.”

And just a few months short of the original expected completion date in August, there was a hangup. City staff said VDOT failed to get proper federal authorization for the release of the funds. Londrey confirmed that the Federal Highway Administration had received and authorized the plan as of July 1, but construction has yet to begin.

It’s not clear exactly what prompted the push to get the fence funded and built four years ago. City officials cite pressure from the University.

“We were asked by UVA to pursue it because they were concerned about students crossing the tracks,” Tolbert said.

UVA spokesman McGregor McCance said he was unable to identify anyone who initiated the project, but said the school does support the construction of a fence.

Safety is a serious concern, city officials said, and previous efforts—police ticketing and the posting of “no trespassing” signs—have not been effective at keeping people off the tracks.

“The first time we have somebody lose a leg, it would be ‘Why didn’t you do this earlier?’” said Tolbert.

Reported injuries and incidents on the tracks here are few and far between. In the 1990s, a woman had her foot severed by a train in Charlottesville, and a man had both feet severed on the tracks, according to news reports. The most recent incident cited by police and reported in local media was in 2006, when an intoxicated graduate survived a near miss with a train after falling asleep along the tracks.

It’s unclear to what extent city police have attempted to deter trespassers on the tracks in recent years. Police spokesman Lt. Ronnie Roberts said that since 2004, city cops have issued only two summonses for the specific misdemeanor state code violation of trespassing on railroad tracks. There have been plenty more stops of illegal crossers—news reports from 2008 document a crackdown that led to dozens of $250 tickets in a single day near the Corner Parking Lot—but Roberts said those and others were likely written up as violations for general trespassing, making it nearly impossible to track enforcement at illegal crossings. 

Police are concerned about safety, Roberts said, and not only because of possible injury. 

“We know a lot of students have moved into that area, and some have become victims of crime or been followed from the tracks,” he said. But he conceded that there hasn’t been a lot of effort to deter track crossing with tougher enforcement.

“It’s not one of our priorities in this area,” he said

There’s another source of pressure on the city to wall off the tracks: the railroad companies that operate and maintain the tracks through town. Tolbert and Roberts both said the railroad companies—Norfolk Southern Railway and CSX, which own tracks, and Buckingham Branch Railroad, which leases from CSX—have raised concerns about the city’s unsecured crossing areas and rate of trespass for years.

“In most cities, [trains] go through at a certain speed,” Tolbert said. “They reduce that here”—to 10 miles per hour—“because of the concerns they have about multiple access points. That’s the primary reason [the railroad companies are pushing for the fence].”

Gale Wilson, senior vice president of Buckingham Branch Railroad, confirmed that the company had meetings with UVA and the city about the project, prompted by increased trespassing along the route.

Neither Norfolk Southern nor CSX replied to requests for comment.

Ilnicky said he understands the safety concerns, “but there has to be a better solution than blocking off pedestrian travel,” he said. “There could be a pedestrian crossway.”

Londrey and members of the Charlottesville Neighborhood Development Services staff confirmed that no solutions outside of a fence were ever seriously discussed. “[The plan has] always been the fence as long as I’ve been involved,” said Tolbert.

Kleeman wondered if the unsanctioned crossing is really as worrisome as officials say. 

“I don’t think it’s any more dangerous than going across a regular railroad crossing,” he said. “You look and see if there’s a train coming. It seems to me people do accept that risk when they go across.”

But Adam Steffler, who works a regular shift at the Corner Parking Lot, said he’s witnessed some scary incidents, including a train that had to grind to a halt to avoid hitting someone passed out on the tracks.

“Having an ambulance show up to take a corpse off the track would be absolutely terrible,” he said. At the same time, he wondered if there could have been a better solution than a barrier that will likely end up being scaled at some point. “Whether this is the right thing or the wrong thing to do, I don’t know,” he said.

The bottom line, said Tolbert, is that crossing the tracks is against the law for good reasons, and a fence—however long it takes to get built—is a straightforward solution with a federal funding source.

“The fence is an inconvenience to some people, but they haven’t got any business walking across there anyway,” he said. “It’s illegal to cross at any time. It’s humorous to me that so many people are getting so upset over a safety project.”