Virginia commuters waiting for the promise of high-speed rail

June 4, 2011

At 6 each morning, Tom Herbert, a software engineer from Richmond, boards the No. 86 train at the Staples Mill station and begins his 2-hour-35-minute commute to Northern Virginia.

It would be an understatement to say that he’s tantalized by the promise of high-speed rail. Just 20 or 30 mph faster, he figures, could save him an hour or more a day.

He could be in for a long wait.

Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell wasn’t one of the Republican governors who returned federal money earmarked for high-speed rail in their states. He opted not to even apply.

With McDonnell’s high approval ratings and growing role in a party intent on slowing down federal spending, Herbert and other critics wonder whether the governor is playing politics with high-speed rail funding — a prime target of some Republican governors determined to demonstrate their budget-cutting bona fides.

“Is he backing away because of his national ambitions?” Herbert asked of McDonnell, who has been mentioned as a potential vice presidential candidate. “Is ideology getting in the way?”

Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean T. Connaughton dismissed talk of politics, saying the state didn’t apply for the pair of federal grants because accepting the funds required it to either finish construction before it was ready to build or to contribute a state match it could not afford.

Twenty-four states, including Maryland and North Carolina, were awarded $2 billion in federal money this month. Nearly $800 million will be spent on high-speed rail along the East Coast between Boston and Charlotte, though not through Virginia.

“Virginia just doesn’t seem to get it,’’ said James Ukrop, a prominent Richmond businessman and co-chairman of Virginians for High Speed Rail, a nonprofit group. “I’m very disappointed in our short-term thinking.”

Herbert and dozens of people commute each morning on Amtrak between Virginia’s capital and the national’s capital — a groggy, coffee-clutching collection of lawyers, federal employees, Capitol Hill staffers and financial managers.

They slide into the blue seats, generally in the last car of the eight-car train, with their commuter kits: bags filled with pillows, jackets, magazines, snacks and laptops.

If the train is on time, Herbert will arrive in Alexandria 1 hour 47 minutes later. There, he rides the Metro 10 stops to his Arlington County office, and he usually walks in the door about 8:35 a.m.

Bill Talty, who processes claims at the Labor Department for people who have worked in the atomic weapons program, used to drive from his suburban Richmond home to Fredericksburg, where he would catch the Virginia Railway Express to get to his Capitol Hill office. But, he said, the VRE train was as cramped and uncomfortable as a school bus, so after six months he switched to Amtrak.

He buys a monthly pass for $756 and, like other federal employees, receives a $230 stipend for his commute. But he doesn’t regret the cost, because of the ease of travel.

Still, he would prefer his 15-hour workday to be shorter. “Obviously, people would love that,’’ Talty said as he settled into his seat, sipped coffee out of a thermos and fired up his laptop on a recent morning. “I would love that.”

GOP rejection

President Obama’s administration had planned on spending $53 billion on high-speed rail in the next five years, but the initiative was cut by $3 billion in its proposed 2012 budget.

Republican governors have balked at Obama’s proposal — drawing cheers from the tea party base that helped sweep them into office — as they try to demonstrate to voters that they are serious about shrinking government.

McDonnell has become a prominent voice for the GOP, delivering its response to Obama’s State of the Union address last year and serving as vice chairman of the Republican Governors Association. He has campaigned vigorously for GOP candidates, including a pair of governors who eventually rejected the federal high-speed rail funding.

In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker (R) refused more than $800 million to create a rail line from Milwaukee to Madison, after campaigning against it with a NoTrain.com Web site and running TV ads saying, “We’ll stop this train.” Walker said taxpayers could not afford the $7.5 million a year in operational costs.

In Ohio, Gov. John Kasich (R) killed a $400 million project designed to link Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati because of too many unanswered questions about ridership, how fast it would go and how much it would cost a state with an $8 billion budget shortfall.

In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott (R) returned $2.4 billion to build a line connecting Tampa to Orlando — a project decades in the making — saying construction cost overruns and low ridership could have left the state on the hook for billions of dollars.

It was Florida’s funding that McDonnell chose to pass up after Scott rejected it — money that Virginia Democratic Sens. Mark R. Warner and James Webb had lobbied the federal government to give their state.

“It’s unfortunate, because funding opportunities like this may not come around again, and Senator Warner believes Virginia is the perfect place for investments in high-speed rail,’’ said Kevin Hall, Warner’s spokesman.

Virginia Democratic Party Chairman Brian Moran said that McDonnell’s inaction was a sign of the GOP’s sharp tilt.

“It appears to be a competition to out-demagogue each other. It is based purely on ideological purity,’’ Moran said.

But Connaughton said the state was not able to pursue one of the federal grants because it did not have money available for the state’s 20 percent match. Instead, he said, the state asked U.S. transportation officials if Virginia could forgo the 2017 deadline to have construction completed on a second grant, but they declined. He said the state’s best estimate for completion was 2021.

Thelma Drake, the state’s director of rail and public transportation, and Kevin Page, the state’s chief of rail transportation, did not return phone calls for comment.

Ridership on all Virginia regional trains between October 2010 and April 2011 was 386,000, an increase of 21 percent over the previous year, according to Amtrak. Ridership on all trains that serve Virginia was 1.5 million, an increase of 10 percent over the previous year.

McDonnell’s Democratic predecessor, Timothy M. Kaine, criticized the governor for spending money on other projects but not having the matching funds available for high-speed rail.

“You don’t help yourself down the road by forgoing opportunities for infrastructure investments like that,’’ said Kaine, who is running to replace Webb next year. “You ought to be looking for investments to build your economy. ’’

Kaine’s probable Republican rival, ex-senator and former governor George Allen, declined to comment about whether he would have applied for the money.

But Jamie Radtke, a former leader of the Virginia Tea Party Patriots who is running for the GOP Senate nomination, praised McDonnell’s decision.

“The federal government’s budget is $1.5 trillion in the red, so how does it make sense for Washington to spend $2 billion on rail and ask Virginia to spend another $400 million?’’ Radtke said.

Enough riders?

This year, McDonnell got approval from the General Assembly to spend nearly $3 billion for transportation. The money will help fund 900 projects, mostly for the state’s clogged roads, including the widening of Interstate 66 and high-occupancy toll lanes on interstates 95 and 395.

The Commonwealth Transportation Board, headed by Connaughton, decided which projects to fund. Only a fraction of the money will be spent on rail — not enough to pay for the state match on the federal grant.

“How can that be? There’s plenty of money in Virginia to provide a capital match,’’ said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. “We believe that the money is there to provide matches for critical needs.”

Virginia has several legs of rail it would like to make high speed; all are undergoing environmental impact studies, but construction has not started on any of them.

Sharon Bulova (D), chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, said she was disappointed that the state did not apply for rail funds, because residents in its most-populated county are looking to commute daily across the state and into the nation’s capital.

A quarter of Fairfax County’s 517,000 workers commute more than 45 minutes, according to census data. About 60,000 of them commute more than 60 minutes to work.

“Our area is part of the mid-Atlantic high-speed rail corridor,’’ Bulova said. “We would like to see it as part of the larger plan. This would have been helpful.”

High-speed rail advocates want a national network of 17,000 miles of rail that can handle trains traveling at 220 mph. But some projects, like those in Virginia, might not be truly high speed. Still, federal officials say initial money could connect more cities, with later improvements enabling the speed of trains to increase.

Bob Chase, executive director of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, a business-supported group that lobbies for transportation funding, said he wonders whether there would be enough riders between Richmond and Washington to warrant high-speed rail spending.

“I question the cost-effectiveness,’’ Chase said. “I question who’s on that train.”

Herbert, the commuter from Richmond, knows there are already people waiting to get on that train. Especially train No. 86.

Staff researcher Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

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