Monday, November 23, 2020: Passenger rail advocates seek comment on post-pandemic passenger comfort

  
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Today's Patreon-fueled shout-out is for the Plant Northern Piedmont Natives Campaign, an initiative that wants you to plant native plants in yards, farms, public spaces and gardens in the northern Piedmont. Native plants provide habitat, food sources for wildlife, ecosystem resiliency in the face of climate change, and clean water.  Over 25 partner organizations all want to help you! Start at the Plant Northern Piedmont Natives Facebook page and tell them Lonnie Murray sent you! 

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With three days to go until Thanksgiving, the Virginia Department of Health set another record for new daily cases today with 3,242. As with last Monday, the high number is due in part to database downtime.

"The 3,242 case count reported on Monday, November 23 is in part due to a catch-up from the VDH data system being down for upgrades for a few hours over the weekend,” reads a caveat on the website. “A reminder: the number of new daily cases is based on the date VDH reported them. In order to observe the spread of illness most effectively, please review the charts that show cases by date of symptom onset.” 

The seven-day average for new cases is 2,343. The seven-day average of new daily cases per 100,000 is now 27.5 statewide, a metric known as the incidence rate. That figure was 18.7 a week ago. The total number of new cases per 100,000 population within the last 14 days is 323.6. That figure was 249.1 a week ago. 

There are another 42 cases in the Blue Ridge Health District and the seven-day average for new cases is 36.  

Looking around the state, Augusta County has a seven-day average of 27 new cases a day, and their incidence rate is 35.8. Their total number of new cases per 100,000 population in the past 14 days is 332.6. 

Culpeper County sets a record today of 173 cases reported, bringing their seven-day average for new cases to 38. Their incidence rate is 72.4 and their total number of new cases per 100,000 population over the last 14 days is 873.5. 

Roanoke County has a seven-day average of 79 new cases a day, and their incidence rate is 84.3. The 14-day figure in Roanoke County is 769.6. 

Fairfax County, Virginia’s most-populated locality, reports 453 cases today. There are over 1.1 million people in that jurisdiction. Their incidence rate is 24.5 and their 14-day figure is 289.8. 

The death rate has not climbed nearly as high as the case count. There are only four deaths reported statewide. None were reported yesterday. There have been 136 COVID fatalities in the past seven days and the statewide total is now 3,942. 

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An organization that seeks to increase the availability of passenger rail in Virginia wants you to give your thoughts on what it would take to get you back on a train whenever the pandemic is over. Danny Plaugher with Virginians for High Speed Rail said the feedback will be used in their next report on the state of passenger rail in the Commonwealth. 

“And as you know with all public transportation, mass transportation, whether it be airlines or rail or buses, have been dramatically been impacted because of COVID so what we’ve done is put this survey together to ask our members, ask every Virginians across the state what would make them feel more comfortable getting back on the train,” Plaugher said. 

Plaugher said the group’s previous reports called for the state to invest in rail, something the Northam Administration accomplished late last year when they announced the purchase of right of way from private companies. He said there’s a bright future for rail, but this pandemic year has been brutal to ridership and the survey is intended to inform recovery. 

“Our passenger rail on average normally used to handle about 80,000 passengers a month,” Plaugher said. “Our six Amtrak regional trains, in April that was down to 3,000, so a 97 percent decline in ridership. That has slowly been built up a little bit and we’re at about 23,000 riders a month.” 

The pandemic has delayed the completion of the state’s purchase of right of way, but Plaugher said the deal will go through. Much of the linear land was sold by Virginia in the 1990’s and when the transaction is complete, it will be under the jurisdiction of the Virginia Passenger Rail Authority. That body met for the first time in late October. 

“The good thing about them getting the rail authority and starting to buy these rail corridors is that we’re beginning to fix the mistakes that the state has made over the previous decades,” Plaugher said. “Virginia used to own the D.C. to Richmond rail corridor. All of it until [Governor] Doug Wilder sold it in the 90’s as part of a plan to balance the budget. And he sold this asset for $250 million that is now worth billions.”

Plaugher said his dream is that one day the Commonwealth Corridor will provide consistent east-west rail service between Christiansburg to Virginia Beach. 

You can access the Virginians for High Speed Rail survey here. (link)

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Today in meetings, the steering committee that is overseeing the C’Ville Plans Together initiative will meet virtually at 4 p.m. today.  As a refresher, the City Council in place in February 2019 opted to hire a consultant to complete the Comprehensive Plan review while also writing an affordable housing plan. The firm Rhodeside & Harwell was hired and have developed new guiding principles that will guide the plan, the update of which has been under review since January 2017. Jennifer Koch is the project manager. 

“And as part of that update to the Comprehensive Plan, we’ve drafted an affordable housing plan which will feed into the Comprehensive Plan goals and strategies,” Koch said. “Once the revised Comprehensive Plan, including the affordable housing plan, once that’s completely updated we will rewrite the zoning ordinance to ensure it reflects all of these goals and strategies.” 

One of the major planks of the draft affordable housing plan is an annual commitment of $10 million for ten years in order to help build more affordable housing units. Last week, City Council held a work session to help make cuts to the capital improvement budget to address the fact that the city is projected to reach its borrowing limit. I’ll have a story about that budget work session out later today. 

In other meetings:

  • Charlottesville’s Social Services Advisory Board meets virtually at noon. They will talk about their annual report to City Council. (meeting info)

  • The Board of Trustees for the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library meets at 3 p.m. Among the items is another update on the library system’s COVID response. (zoom info)

  • The Albemarle Historic Preservation Committee meets at 4:30 p.m. On the agenda is a presentation on conservation easements, a discussion of the Purvis Store in Esmont, and an update on new historical markers in the county. (meeting info)