June 10, 2011

Critics of Virginia’s recent decision not to apply for federal high-speed rail money would have you believe that the commonwealth missed a golden opportunity to deliver new passenger rail service to help address the state’s transportation needs. The real story is that the McDonnell administration is moving quickly to deliver a historic package of passenger and freight rail improvements that will get Virginia moving, while opting not to rely on a federal program fraught with unknown costs, unrealistic deadlines and uncertain outcomes.

The administration of Gov. Robert F. McDonnell has good reason not to believe it can rely on the program being offered by Washington. This year, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) issued a notice seeking applications for high-speed rail funding that had been returned by other states. The notice made it clear that the majority of the funds available were for projects to be completed by 2017. Even if fully funded, the lengthy federal environmental process necessary for the Washington-to-Richmond high speed rail project meant the earliest Virginia could complete the work was 2021. There was also a more limited amount of funds available that did not have an expenditure deadline but which required a state match of 20 percent, meaning Virginia would need up to $200 million to put toward high-speed rail on the Washington-to-Richmond corridor.

Because of that, Virginia wrote to the FRA in March asking whether the 2017 deadline could be extended. In a conference call, the commonwealth was informed that the deadline could not be changed and that the likelihood of Virginia receiving sufficient funding to update the entire corridor — estimated to cost about $2 billion — was low. It was at this point that a decision was made not to pursue the funding. The commonwealth simply could not in good faith apply for funds, because it was unable to meet the terms, conditions and spirit of the grant.

Influencing this decision, moreover, was the uncertainties surrounding the entire federal high-speed rail program. Congress was considering a major rescission of funding and subsequently took back $400 million. Future funding remains uncertain.

Critically, more than a year ago, Virginia received $75 million to build a third set of tracks for passenger rail service from Prince William County to Stafford County to be used initially by conventional-speed trains but eventually by high-speed trains. To date, the federal government has still not granted Virginia the go-ahead to start construction of this “shovel-ready” project. Virginia has also not received the terms for a $45.5 million grant it received for environmental design work for the high-speed rail corridor from Richmond to Washington, as well as to complete environmental and engineering work for a new Appomattox River bridge. These challenges and delays do not instill confidence in the current federal program.

Does this mean all is lost for passenger rail in Virginia? Not at all.

The McDonnell administration has made tremendous strides in bringing intercity passenger rail to the commonwealth. Using state money, Virginia provides daily Amtrak regional train service from Lynchburg to Washington and from Richmond to Washington. Both services have been a big success, with ridership well above projections. Virginia is now working to provide daily service to Norfolk that could begin as early as 2012. Incredibly, southern Hampton Roads is the largest metropolitan area in the country without passenger rail service.

Furthermore, this year the General Assembly approved legislation Gov. McDonnell introduced to create the Intercity Passenger Rail Operating and Capital Fund. Establishing this fund makes Virginia a national leader for covering its passenger rail operating and capital needs, something that is vital given that in 2013 states will be required to assume Amtrak operating costs for regional train service (including the 6 a.m. Amtrak train referenced in a recent Post article). Without this fund, Virginia may not have today’s six conventional-speed regional train services, let alone high speed. In addition, the governor’s transportation funding package approved by the General Assembly includes capital funds for passenger and freight rail projects throughout the commonwealth.

The result is fairly simple: Long after the debate over the federal high-speed passenger rail program is over, the passenger and freight rail services championed by Gov. McDonnell and his administration will be moving Virginians and their products safely and efficiently to their destinations.

Sean T. Connaughton, Richmond

The writer is Virginia’s secretary of transportation.