High-speed rail future riles residents

Residents of three local government territories to be affected by the Rail Baltica II high-speed line to link Helsinki with Berlin through the Baltic capitals by 2024 voiced their dissatisfaction with the project at town hall meetings this week in Ulbroka, Bauska and Limbaži.

On Wednesday in the Ulbroka culture hall on the eastern outskirts of Riga more than 200 people gathered to hear plans and ask questions regarding which objects and residential properties the rail line, with its accompanying massive electrical infrastructure, would likely affect. Residents of the suburban village of Saurieši were especially concerned for their interests, reported LETA Wednesday, as they imagine the future train traffic speeding past the windows of their own homes.

The project managers explained that at this early date, when the preliminary fact-finding and research is still underway, no plans to raze any residential objects have been made. Several residents refused to accept such a statement, and one indignant woman demonstratively left the hall in disbelief.

Residents posed questions about compensation mechanisms for those whose property rights will have to be relinquished to make way for Rail Baltica. Most expressed skepticism as to whether the compensations would be adequate in light of the likely fall in property values as the project takes shape. Many were concerned that public input into the course of the project was to be limited to technological issues, but not to the actual routing of the line through their communities.

Parallel to the Rail Baltica project, residents were also introduced to the reconstruction project for the Estonia-Latvia high-voltage power line, which will provide electricity to the high-speed trains as well as help link the Baltic states’ power grids. Many voiced concern over the impact upon the landscape and environment of the new power line project as well.

Transport ministry project leader Kaspars Vingris explained that the technical project draft would be completed only in 2018, with construction set to begin by 2019 and trains running hopefully by 2024-25.

On Tuesday about 350 residents of south central Bauska district in Zemgale province gathered at the town culture hall for a similar three-hour discussion, where they were less hostile toward the Rail Baltica project, but nevertheless concerned for the line’s impact upon road crossings and land use issues.

Bauska district local government spokesperson Ieva Šomiņa told LETA Tuesday that the main problem was the lack of information regarding details of the project. “People want to be involved in the course of the project and to be informed,” she said.

As the Via Baltica motor vehicle road is also being developed in the Bauska region, residents proposed that Rail Baltica be coordinated with it to avoid the formation of ‘dead zones’ between them, which is of great concern to the locally fertile agriculture sector. Also, some object to the fact that no stops are provided for anywhere in the region the trains will be barreling through on their way to and from between northern and western Europe. Project leader Neils Balgalis reminded the assembled residents that Rail Baltica would allow Latvia to develop local rail infrastructure for cargo and passengers as well.

On Monday many residents of Limbaži in north-central and coastal Vidzeme province were calling the Rail Baltica project an “unstoppable monster” at the town hall meeting that gathered more than 250 people for the discussion of the local impact of the future train route.

The local government representatives told LETA the atmosphere at the meeting was “tense.” Residents posed many questions and their apparent agitation made it difficult for project leaders to respond. As in Bauska and Ulbroka, most attendees were concerned for their personal properties and homes, and how they would be compensated if the line disrupts their lives. Another concern in Vidzeme province are the delicately balanced nature reserve territories with protected habitats for Latvia’s unique flora and fauna.

The Rail Baltica II project will complete its formal preliminary public discussion phase on March 15. More town hall meetings have been scheduled this week and next until then for Riga (March 6), the suburbs of Mārupe (March 7), Vangaži (March 9), Zaķumuiža (March 10), and Garkalne (March 11).

Last week LSM's resident poster-parodist created his latest work, "The Unstoppable!", depicting a Rail Baltica locomotive plowing through Latvians' beloved summer mini-garden plots characteristic of many near-shore residential areas.

LETA has published an infographic (in Latvian) depicting the various aspects and alternative geographical routes through the respective administrative local government territories as well as some of the main community objections voiced so far.

 

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