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Is Virginia on board?

Momentum is building for passenger rail service, but other states are farther down the track

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Print this page by Chip Jones

When Thelma Drake reluctantly drives from Richmond to a meeting in Northern Virginia, she fantasizes about a way to hasten her journey through one of the nation’s most dysfunctional corridors. “I wish I knew where the sluggers are,” she says, referring to the corps of commuters who are picked up by motorists so they can use high occupancy lanes on Interstate 95.

Drake, director of the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation since January, survived many traffic nightmares during two terms in Congress as a Republican representative from Norfolk. One time, she recalls, a truck spilled hydrochloric acid on I-95. “It literally took us 11 hours to get back to Norfolk,” she says.

Such experiences fuel her passion to find an alternative to driving a car in the Old Dominion.  While plans to overhaul the state’s congested road system languish in the General Assembly,  support for improved passenger rail service is gaining momentum. But despite its strategic position along the southern rail gateway into Washington, Virginia is trailing other states in passenger rail initiatives and wound up on the short end of the track when billions in federal rail dollars were awarded earlier this year. Critics say the Old Dominion’s halting approach to rail development is the result of missed opportunities and a lack of initiative in the past by the department Drake now heads.

Improving rail service is a slow, often tedious business — one that requires a political skill on the state and local level. The scores of studies of high-speed rail alternatives, which now gather dust in Drake’s offices, are a reminder of the snail’s pace of government bureaucracy. “That’s why everybody felt they were ready to move ahead,” she says. “You can spend a lot of money studying things. It’s one of the things Governor McDonnell said, ‘Let’s stop studying things and do something!’ ”

During the last session of the General Assembly, Drake helped craft an amendment to Gov. Bob McDonnell’s budget. The change freed up funds to make track and signal improvements that will bring Amtrak service to Norfolk within three years. The 1.1 million residents of South Hampton Roads haven’t had passenger service since 1977. The rail fever was evident in January when more than 500 people showed up in Norfolk for a state public hearing on high-speed rail.

By gaining a one-time waiver to use the state’s only dedicated source of rail funding, Norfolk Southern Corp. agreed to begin the three-year effort to upgrade its line along U.S. 460 between Norfolk and Petersburg — a $75 million project intended to create a passenger rail connection for Norfolk, Richmond and Washington. The state is negotiating with CSX Corp. to upgrade a stretch of track from Petersburg to Richmond as well.

(Richmond officials complain that the planned route of Norfolk-to-Washington trains initially would bypass Main Street Station downtown in favor of Staples Mill station in Henrico County. Rail officials say improving tracks approaching Main Street Station to accommodate Norfolk trains could cost $600 million.)

With plans to start daily, roundtrip service by 2013, Amtrak hopes to meet the needs of military and defense workers wanting to avoid the sometimes tricky car trek from Norfolk. Drake will be among the first to board the train. “We know that with the technology, you can go easily to 90 mph, maybe even 110 mph, so we’re hoping that with time, Norfolk Southern will be comfortable with a little bit higher speeds,” she says.

Drake sees tremendous potential in the Norfolk project, which also could create an attractive travel alternative for beach-bound vacationers. With a seven-mile light rail transit system opening in Norfolk next spring — and plans for light rail percolating in Virginia Beach — “you could get on a train in D.C. and spend a week at the beach and never have a car,” she says. “That would be a great vacation.”

Already, the state is making inroads to improve the reliability and consistency of Amtrak service — improvements that are even more important than higher speeds in getting people to take the train.

A state-subsidized Amtrak train that began serving the Washington-Charlottesville-Lynchburg corridor last fall has exceeded expectations.  In addition, Amtrak plans to add trains from Newport News to Richmond, and from Richmond to D.C. In Northern Virginia, construction of a 23-mile extension of the Metro rail system to Washington Dulles International Airport should help take more cars off the Capital Beltway, as well as help rail passengers making airline connections.

Across Virginia, ridership data shows that when given the chance, travelers will trade car keys for train tickets. In March (the latest month for which information was available), 101,806 passengers rode Amtrak trains in Virginia, up 28 percent from 79,391 during the same month last year.

In fact, during its first six months of operation, the new Lynchburg-Charlottesville-Washington daily train had 55,025 passengers, surpassing its annual ridership goal of 51,000. Because of the new train’s momentum, Amtrak added a station in Burke Center in Fairfax County.

The Lynchburg train is part of a three-year-long demonstration project using state funds. If it stays on its fast track, and if state funds are available, Drake says the Lynchburg train service could be extended to Roanoke. This would be a counterpart in western Virginia to Amtrak’s plans to start serving Norfolk to the east.

Underlying every plan for more passenger service is the uneasy coexistence of passenger and freight service. The fact is that the freight rail systems own all of the lines used by Amtrak in Virginia, and, with the exception of the Northeast Corridor, throughout most of Amtrak’s 21,000-mile network.

“One thing that should be clear to anybody who knows anything about the rail business is that there are few, if any, passenger rail projects anywhere in the world that are profitable,” says Wiley F. Mitchell Jr., a former senior general counsel for Norfolk Southern Corp. who chaired the state’s Rail Advisory Board. “If the railroads had figured out a way after World War II to make a profit out of passenger rail, they would have done it.”

After passenger service was handed over to the National Passenger Railroad Corp. — Amtrak — in 1971, it was inevitable that this stepchild of Congress would never come close to breaking even, Mitchell says. Now, nearly four decades later, the government is still trying to figure out how to run the passenger railroad in a consistent and affordable fashion.

This is the root of the troubled marriage in which the freight railroads — focused on moving coal and other goods on lines that they spend millions to build and repair — operate under a federal mandate to share their tracks with Amtrak.
In 2005, Virginia created the state’s first dedicated revenue stream for rail improvements — both freight and passenger. The fund is relatively small, about $23 million a year, but it provided the money being used to get the Norfolk Amtrak project under way.

But critics say that by mixing freight and passenger rail projects, the General Assembly muddied the waters. The fund requires that for every grant allocated by the state, a matching grant of 30 percent must be made. Theoretically this could come from localities, but in reality only the big freight railroads — Norfolk Southern and CSX — have the deep pockets to participate. This creates a fund that favors the freight carriers’ interests over the need for passenger trains, critics say.

“I’m not saying the [freight] projects are necessarily bad, and they may fit into a strategic vision if there was one,” says Richard Beadles, a longtime passenger-rail activist who once served as president of the old RF&P railroad. “But the Department of Rail and Public Transportation largely reacts to what rail companies, large and small ask for, and what they ask for is not in sync with the larger concerns of the commonwealth. We ought to figure out what we, the commonwealth, want to achieve and try to hand the money out based on that.”

Otherwise, Beadles contends, “We’re not as ready to contend for the Obama Administration’s money as North Carolina was.” Indeed, when the states competed this year for $8 billion from the Rail Stimulus Fund, Virginia walked away with $75 million — a fraction of its application for $1.8 billion. North Carolina, which owns a 317-mile railroad, was awarded $540 million.

Beadles doesn’t blame Drake for that setback, announced just a few days after she took office. “She has demonstrated great personal initiative, and I think that’s great.”  But he believes Drake has inherited a system of planning and funding projects that needs an overhaul.

The critical juncture for Virginia and North Carolina came in the early 1990s: Virginia sold the RF&P rail line to CSX Corp., while keeping the railroad’s real estate holdings, thus “completely ignoring the far-greater longer-term strategic value of the rail corridor linking D.C. with Richmond,” Beadles writes in a report for the Virginia Rail Policy.

North Carolina, meanwhile, bought out the minority-held shares in the North Carolina Railroad and went on to build a passenger service that links its urban centers from Raleigh to Charlotte.

Nonetheless, a North Carolina official says the states are working in tandem to plan for the future. “We’re pleased that Virginia has gotten much more active in the past few years,” says Patrick Simmons, director of the rail division of the North Carolina Department of Transportation. “Virginia has done a lot of high-quality work. If there’s a lesson I’ve learned from years in the business, you have to do that work, and you’ll reap the benefits.”

In fact, North Carolina has conducted the first phase of a lengthy environmental impact study in Virginia as part of a federally backed plan to build a railroad from Petersburg to the North Carolina line, ultimately linking the two states in a high-speed rail corridor.  “We’re in the process of scheduling public hearings in Virginia and North Carolina,” Simmons says. (Hearings will be held in Alberta, Richmond, Petersburg and McKenney in July.) The Federal Railroad Administration has designated this region — including Hampton Roads — as part of the Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor.

Project engineers envision trains that can go at least 110 mph in “sealed corridors” — that is, railroads such as Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, which is unhampered by dangerous road-rail crossings.

Even though construction funds may not be available today, Simmons says, “We’re trying to engineer something [that can handle] higher speeds so that it won’t have to be rebuilt in the future.” Currently, Amtrak trains run at an average speed of 65 mph in Virginia.

The Obama Administration has pledged to allocate another $2.5 billion this fiscal year for states to reach the president’s stated dream of “whisking through towns at speeds over 100 miles an hour, walking only a few steps to public transportation, and ending up just blocks from your destination.”

But can Virginia hop aboard before this next funding train leaves the station?  “It’s going to take the General Assembly coming up with capital money and operating money,” Drake says.

The funding issue became even more pressing last month as state rail officials pondered Amtrak’s plans to create a consistent federal policy for paying for passenger rail service by 2013.

Amtrak officials say they hope to have a national policy in place by the end of summer to standardize what are now different policies with the states. That, in turn, is expected to require millions of dollars in currently unfunded subsidies. According to the state’s estimate, the two state-subsidized Amtrak trains have unfunded operating costs of $41 million for 2011-16.

One problem with securing more federal funds could come if the government requires the states to match every dollar with at least 20 cents of their own money. “We don’t have a 20 percent match,” Drake says, and given the state of the economy, she adds, “Most states don’t have a 20 percent match.”

Despite the fiscal uncertainty, Virginia’s rail advocates report a new sense of momentum — one that goes far beyond nostalgia for Pullman cars and Chattanooga Choo-Choos. It’s grounded in the younger generation’s desire to get off the road and replicate the kind of high-quality ride that many have experienced in travels through Europe or Japan.

“When gas hit $4 a gallon several years ago, Amtrak ridership spiked,” says Daniel Plaugher, the 28-year-old executive director of Richmond-based Virginians for High Speed Rail. “Even though the economy has crashed, they still posted the second highest ridership last year. For the most part, when people have been on the train, they’re sticking to the train.”

Plaugher has been busy spreading the gospel of the state’s leading rail advocacy group. With more than 300 members, three-dozen businesses, nine localities and four economic development agencies, Virginians for High Speed Rail appears to have the right connections. But Plaugher says the appeal of rail goes beyond traditional economic development arguments — developing downtowns, creating multi-modal transportation hubs and the like.

At the end of the day, rail offers an alternative to traffic gridlock — the only transportation system his twenty-something cohort has ever known. Thus, one of his pet arguments for Virginia to ratchet up support for passenger trains: increased worker productivity. “Two hours on a train is totally different than two hours in a car,” says Plaugher, who works on his laptop when taking the train from Richmond to D.C. A typical round-trip fare is $54, “which is still much cheaper than paying the average for mileage reimbursement.”

In Charlottesville, Meredith Richards, the president of Virginians for High Speed Rail, also has seen signs of a rail renaissance among the young. “We know U.Va. students are using it,” she says of Amtrak’s expanded round-trip service, which offers one-way fares to Washington ranging from $22 to $56. (The price changes depending on time of year, travel demand, and how far in advance you book the ticket.)

When the rock band U2 played at U.Va. last fall, “about 300 people arrived from Northern Virginia on the southbound evening train, got off and walked to Scott Stadium,” Richards recalls.
The growing interest in passenger rail among Pentagon-bound defense workers and Bono-bound rock fans proves that “If you build it, they will come,” Richards says.

But is passenger service sustainable, especially given the recent derailments of so many federal and state programs? Plaugher, for one, believes investment in passenger rail enjoys bipartisan support in Congress.  “The question becomes: Is Virginia going to have the will and the resources and the ability to participate actively?”

State Sen. Yvonne Miller, D-Norfolk and chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee, introduced a bill that led to the formation of a 10-member joint subcommittee to study the expansion and funding of high-speed passenger rail service. “Part of the problem … is when you ask the state to take care of the maintenance” of new or upgraded rail lines “you also have to make a strong case that it would pay for itself and be worth the investment,” the legislator says.
Like other passenger-rail supporters, the senator is seeing more people interested in taking the train. “We’re in an evolving process as people are beginning to understand they can live in a world without cars if they have good passenger rail,” she says.


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