The city built it, and still they come.
A 7-foot metal fence now stretches along more than 1,000 feet of railroad track from the 14th Street train trestle on the Corner north beyond the end of Elliewood Avenue, a barrier built with $385,000 in Federal Highway Administration funds. That is, it would stretch that length, if not for a conspicuous gap smack in the middle of a well-worn path between 15th Street and the Corner parking lot. On a recent weekday evening, dozens of backpack-toting students poured through the opening in the span of two minutes. Their enthusiasm for the illegal shortcut is both the impetus for the fence project and the reason it’s now delayed, said Director of Neighborhood Development Services Jim Tolbert.
“If the kids would quit pulling stuff up and vandalizing it, it would be done by now,” he said. Almost nightly, people have been sabotaging the work of the Richmond-based contractors the city hired. The big gap is thanks to a particularly aggressive assault on the fence; in the early morning hours of October 28, said police, somebody rammed it with an SUV—apparently intentionally.
“You pull up and back up three times and hit it, and you gotta wonder,” Tolbert said. It’s set things back, but it won’t affect the city’s bill for the project, he said, just the contractor’s bottom line.
Charlottesville police spokesman Lieutenant Steve Upman said the SUV incident is still under investigation, and in the meantime, the department is stepping up enforcement at the spot. Last week, an officer patrolling the Corner wrote numerous citations for illegal trespassing on the tracks, a Class 4 misdemeanor that comes with a $35 fine (it jumps to $124 when you add in court fees).
“It’s about keeping people safe more than getting people in trouble,” Upman said.
Officials emphasized safety as the main impetus for the project when we reported on their plans to build the fence earlier this year. The only reports of serious injury on the tracks near the Corner that C-VILLE could find date to the 1990s, though officials said trains coming through Charlottesville have to slow down dramatically in part because close calls are common here.
But Rachel Murphy, co-chair of the UVA Student Council’s Safety & Wellness Committee, said part of the reason students are so upset about the fence is that many don’t feel safe walking the legal route that takes them through the intersection of University Avenue and 14th Street. Panhandlers hang out there, she said, and there are no lights under the trestle. That’s why a lot of students are agitating for a different solution—a pedestrian bridge, or even a legal at-grade crossing.
“If this fence stands and we don’t come up with a pedestrian crossing, people are going to have to cross under that bridge, and they need to feel safe doing that,” Murphy said.
Second-year Emily Beacham had a different take.
“It’s just annoying having to go all the way around,” she said as she stood on 15th Street early one evening last week, students streaming by behind her on a beeline to the gap in the fence. While people still have the shortcut option, they’re going to take it. “When there wasn’t a fence, a train would go by for 15 minutes, and there would be a mob of people waiting,” she said. “No one would want to walk around while the train was going by.”
Police hope the threat of a fine will adjust people’s priorities—at least until contractors manage to fix the busted fence.
“It takes a while to change behavior like that,” Upman said.