Overpass proposal reviewed by residents

Published 5:21 pm Friday, November 6, 2020

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More than a decade in the making, and still more than three years from coming to fruition, the city has worked with multiple agencies to find a safe way to cross the Commonwealth Railway at Wilroy Road and Nansemond Parkway and address congestion concerns when trains invariably back up traffic.

In working to solve what has been a vexing problem for engineers, they have had to navigate a large area of wetlands on one side, a neighborhood on the other and historical resources in the middle in trying to find a way to keep traffic flowing safely through the area.

Public Works Director L.J. Hansen said at a design public hearing Nov. 5 at John Yeates Middle School that the design for the $24 million project is the best solution — and a much-needed one — that addresses the current issues with the crossing and roads.

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“Rail traffic used to be (at) a much lower level, and then with the development of the APM (Terminals) … we really started seeing more trains,” Hansen said, “and as they have continued to do more and more and more, the amount of rail traffic has gotten more frequent, the trains are longer, the delays are longer and the impact to commuters are longer.

“And anybody that’s familiar with this intersection knows that if you want to go straight, and that intersection is blocked … currently at this point we have it signed so you have to turn, but if somebody violates that sign and stops, we can see people backing up clear past (Nansemond) High School.”

Hansen said the backups have caused people to drive on the wrong side of the road, causing accidents and close calls.

With Nansemond Parkway being a prime corridor for the city, “This is not just another road,” Hansen said. “This is a material road that we count on to be able to move traffic from North Suffolk to downtown and back, so it’s very important to us to try and preserve this corridor.”

Hansen said the number of cars and trains coming through the area would continue to rise. In 2014, 13,100 vehicles were using the road daily. Projections for 2040 show 22,700 vehicles using that area of road daily, according to data provided at the design public meeting.

As part of the project, an overpass would be built over the existing Commonwealth Railroad and then eliminate the existing at-grade rail crossing on Nansemond Parkway. Wilroy Road and Nansemond Parkway would be realigned from just north of Bridlewood Lane, to about 0.42 miles south of the existing Wilroy Road/Nansemond Parkway intersection.

As part of the rail overpass, a new, roughly 200-foot long bridge structure with enough height to allow for double-stacked rail transport containers would be built. The project would also include sidewalks, drainage improvements, stormwater management facilities and signals.

However, one Bridlewood Estates resident believes he has a solution that would be less impactful to the neighborhood, maintain the lower impact to the wetlands on the opposite side and use up less land.

Chris Jensen said he is concerned about the impact of the overpass project on the Bridlewood Estates community and that of the community equine center which the project splits.

“The city’s problem right now is that, primarily, when there’s a train crossing or when traffic backs up on (U.S. Route) 58,” Jensen said, “this road gets clogged because of the light, so, loud and clear, city’s decision is, we’re going to have a railroad overpass.

“So our problem in Bridlewood Estates (is) the barn and the riding rink become unusable, and we lose, basically, half of this front field. We don’t have enough pasture, and without a barn, you  can’t run that business and you change us from an equine community to just a community with a bunch of open land that we own and we can’t do anything with.”

He considers his idea a win-win for both the community and the city. His idea is to have drivers make a right hand turn from Nansemond Parkway onto Wilroy Road and then loop onto an overpass over the railroad tracks and back onto Nansemond Parkway, rather than split the equine property.

However, Jensen said he has been told that keeping the right-hand turn from Nansemond Parkway onto Wilroy Road would not be safe.

Hansen said the city is evaluating Jensen’s proposal. Jensen thinks it’ll be cheaper and will use less land the city will have to acquire.

“We have received his letter,” Hansen said. “We’re evaluating his letter and we owe him a response and we’ll get it back to him.”

Jensen believes his idea would be good for all parties.

“I think it’s a win-win for everybody,” Jensen said. “It lets us keep our horse field, (and) it gets the overpass that the city wants.”

Bill and Teresa Lee, who also live in Bridlewood Estates, said they are concerned about the taking of the horse pastures for the overpass project. They are concerned about what they believe will be unusable land as a result of the project, and that the noise from the road will be too loud for the horses.

Hansen said he wishes there was another way to do the project and not impact anyone, but he said that’s not possible. He said there are a number of utilities, rail corridors and other things the city is trying to mitigate. He said in a meeting with the Bridlewood Estates community, the city suggested putting in a berm to mitigate the noise for the sake of the horses.

“If there was another way to do this without impacting anybody, I’d try and find a way to do that,” Hansen said. “I just think that this is the right design to do the multiple objectives that we’re trying to accomplish here.”

The city is accepting comments on the project until Nov. 20, and will send that information to the Virginia Department of Transportation, which will share that with the Federal Highway Administration within the U.S. Department of Transportation. That has to happen before the city could move forward with right-of-way acquisition. The city will hold one more public meeting at a City Council meeting, where council could give authorization to acquire property.

The anticipated schedule for the project has right-of-way acquisition beginning in spring 2021, with construction beginning in summer 2022 and the project completed two years later.

Hansen said the project is funded, and while there can be tweaks to the design, it would be a challenge at this stage to make major overhauls to it. With entities such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, state Department of Environmental Quality, Federal Rail Authority, state Department of Rail and Public Transportation, VDOT, FHWA and the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, it would be that much more complicated to move forward with the project in a timely manner.

“You think about all those agencies,” Hansen said, “and it took us five tries to get through there to find the one thing that we could thread the needle and make an alignment that they were happy with.

“It would be very challenging for us to move anything of significance at this point.”