Monday, March 01, 2010

Virginia's future is on rails

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"Whether you like rail or not, it is the future," said Thelma Drake, the new director of the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation. "It's all about mobility and how you serve the maximum number of people," The Richmond Times Dispatch reports.

The state suffered a setback in the recent announcement of federal stimulus grants for high-speed passenger-rail projects across the nation. Virginia sought $1.8 billion but got just $75 million for its top rail initiative. But state and local officials were undaunted in their efforts to improve rail service between Washington and Richmond, and on into the rest of the state.

"Our job is to go find the money we're going to need," Drake said. And that money is in Washington. She said that as a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Norfolk, "a big part of my job is the Washington component," convincing federal officials of the value of investing in the state's rail plans.

"The Richmond region is perfectly situated in the middle of the federal government's efforts to connect Washington, D.C., to a true Southeast high-speed rail corridor," said Robert A. Crum Jr., executive director of the Richmond Regional Planning District Commission. Or, as Drake put it, "we are key. You can't get there without going through us."

Building a high-speed rail system is a matter of putting in place a large number of individually small, if expensive, improvements that gradually add up to the ability to regularly - and reliably - run a lot of passenger trains at speeds of 90 to 110 mph. The fastest that passenger trains run in Virginia is 79 mph.

As a result, said Kim Scheeler, president and CEO of the Greater Richmond Chamber, even a small federal stimulus grant is valuable. "We've got $75 million more than we had," Scheeler said. "We see it as Step One. . . . There are still more opportunities" for federal funds."

In fact, "the investments south of Richmond will improve the reliability of Amtrak's Silver, Carolinian and Palmetto services," said Daniel L. Plaugher, executive director of Virginians for High Speed Rail and the Southeast High Speed Rail Association. "And the improvements north of Richmond will improve on-time performance and reduce trip time of all Amtrak and Virginia Railway Express service using the corridor."

An additional $2.5 billion will be available from the federal government this year for high-speed rail projects, Drake said: "We're going to be applying for it." And Congress also is considering providing $1 billion a year for five years for rail work.

Railroads loom large in the state's transportation future as Virginia runs out of capacity on its roads. The Northern Virginia metro area is the fifth most-congested region in the nation, and Interstates 95, 64 and 81 have become the state's intercity Main Streets, with traffic jams to match.

From 1987 to 2007, Virginia's population increased by 30 percent, while the number of miles traveled on the state's roads grew by 50 percent, according to the state's long-range transportation plan. Highway mileage, however, grew by only 8 percent.

The age of go-go highway construction is over. Keeping Virginia's transportation systems running is becoming more difficult as demands increase and financial resources shrink. Since spring 2008, Virginia's six-year transportation revenue has dwindled by $4.6 billion, down to $22.5 billion for 2010-2015.

Meanwhile, more and better passenger-rail service can relieve highway congestion while helping the economy by encouraging tourism, supporting jobs and promoting local investment, rail proponents say. Passengers cannot ride on a high-speed train in Virginia. The closest is Amtrak's Acela service for Washington, New York and Boston.

Virginia has two passenger railroads, the Amtrak national rail passenger service and the Virginia Railway Express commuter system. Last year, just more than 1 million Virginia travelers took Amtrak, which operates more than 20 trains daily in the state, including seven long-distance trains and the regional service to Richmond and Newport News. More than 3.8 million passengers rode VRE from either Fredericksburg or Manassas to Washington during 2009.

The Staples Mill Station in Henrico County is Virginia's busiest Amtrak stop, handling 256,006 travelers last year, while the Main Street Station in downtown Richmond served 23,576.

In the past year, Virginia invested in Amtrak service for the first time in its history. The state's three-year pilot program will pay to run two new trains: a Lynchburg-to-Washington service and a Richmond-to-Washington train. Both trains connect with the Northeast Corridor. The Lynchburg train represents the first part of improvements aimed at expanding service to Roanoke and Bristol. Additionally, the state has invested more than $197 million to upgrade the Interstate 95 rail corridor.

Virginia also has finished work on enhancing railroad tunnel clearances for the Heartland Corridor multi-state freight-rail initiative, running along U.S. 460. The tunnel clearance project will reduce rail-shipping time between Hampton Roads and the Midwest by a day and a half.

Between 2010 and 2035, Virginia's population is expected to grow by about one-third, from roughly 8 million to 10.3 million-10.9 million, according to the state's 2035 transportation plan. More than three-quarters of that growth will occur in the state's urban crescent from Northern Virginia through the Fredericksburg area to Richmond and Hampton Roads - prime territory for rail and transit service, which thrives where population densities are high.

Virginia has 54 public-transit systems - from very large to very small - across the state, and construction has begun on two major transit initiatives in the most-congested regions of Virginia: the Dulles Metrorail project in Northern Virginia and The Tide light-rail system in Hampton Roads. Meanwhile, transit ridership - 192 million passenger trips a year in 2007 - could grow by as much as 4 percent a year, climbing to as many as 586.6 million passenger trips in 2035. Balanced against that, the state's budget for rail and public transit has been averaging about $450 million a year and will drop to about $350 million next year because the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority has taken over the Dulles Metrorail project.

At the same time, the state is faced with an increasing demand for transit and rail operating funds as new services begin running. For instance, the state rail agency said, Virginia does not yet have money nailed down to operate the new Lynchburg and Richmond Amtrak trains after the pilot program ends in three years.

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