Trojan train: Keep D.C. a car commute away


I used to fantasize about hopping on a train in Charlottesville on a Saturday morning, spending the day in Washington, and catching the train back to Charlottesville in the evening.

Wouldn't that be nifty, I thought, until it dawned on me that the same reliable commuter train that would enhance my leisure time would likely transform our Piedmont paradise into a DC suburb– one with all the charm of Fairfax County.

And it could happen.

As a new member of the advisory board for ASAP (Advocates for a Sustainable Albemarle Population), I'm privy to some interesting emails making the rounds. A few days ago, I received one with the subject line "ASAP and the proposed Charlottesville to D.C. Rail Link."

A concerned citizen, Sam Speedie, was writing ASAP members to drum up support for the Virginia Railway Express daily commuter link between Washington and Charlottesville.

Speedie, who recently moved his family here, finds that commuting to his job in Washington is lengthy and inconvenient. He would like ASAP members to volunteer as advocates for this commuter line and to write letters, circulate petitions, etc.

My first thought was: Why is he appealing to ASAP, an organization whose mission is to preserve the quality of life in Albemarle County by controlling development?

Why would any people who value what we have here want to raise their hands and say, "Why, yes, I'd like Charlottesville/Albemarle to become a bedroom community for Washington, DC. I can't wait to welcome trainloads of commuters returning home from their jobs in Northern Virginia. I'd jump at the chance to subsidize the inevitable escalation in development with ever-higher property assessments to help pay for the new schools we'll need, plus all those new roads and sewer lines. Bring it on!"

But as I read the board members' reactions to the letter, I understood Speedie's angle: How can members of a pro-environment organization oppose public transport?

My response was: Watch me.

If playing the environmentalist card helps Northern Virginians relocate to Charlottesville thanks to the commuter-rail link, that railway will be nothing but a Trojan Train– and out of that train will pour an army of D.C. workers with high salaries and an appetite for hefty mortgages that will drive your already stratospheric property assessment to astronomic heights.

Every commuter will need a house, schools for the kids, an SUV for soccer games and grocery runs. This will lead to further degradation of our environment and depletion of our natural resources. The quality of life that we treasure will dissolve into a fuzzy memory.

It's not as though all those theoretical Charlottesville-to-D.C. commuters are now motoring up and down Rte. 29 every day. They don't come here, because people who work in Washington don't live here.

I find it hard to support the idea of public transportation that will foster an influx of new residents who would otherwise live closer to their place of employment. Long commutes are environmentally unsound and not to be encouraged, whether by automobile or by an unnecessary rail service.

Sure, developers would make a fortune. But the development that would result from easy commuting to D.C. would, as always happens, siphon money out of the pockets of the rest of us. Who else will pay for the new roads, the new schools, the extended sewer lines required by new neighborhoods?

Our infrastructure was just fine before the developers swooped in, made a mint, and moved on to devour the next hunk of picturesque farmland.

The increased money we pay for property taxes goes to finance the developers' ventures– it is a de facto "growth tax." When will we all wake up and catch on?

As it stands now, a five-hour round trip commute by car five days a week is just too much driving. But a train plus a laptop equals a rolling office. VoilĂ : The long commute becomes do-able. How convenient!

Consider the locales that we think of as paradise– Bali, Fiji, and the fictional Shangri-la, for example. What the unspoiled gems of the world have in common is that they're hard to get to. It's not convenient to get to a serene mountaintop in Tibet– or to Albemarle County from Washington, D.C. Geography sustains paradise, if you let it.

Passing up the convenience of weekend trips to Washington is a small price to pay for protecting our quality of life. Geography can sustain our Piedmont paradise if we let it.