Va., U.S. To Spend $13 Million On Upgrade

By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 1, 2008

RICHMOND, Sept. 30 -- The state and federal governments will spend $13 million to improve passenger rail service south of Fredericksburg as part of a multiyear project to make trains faster and ease traffic in Northern Virginia.

The money will be used to build a third train track on a three-mile stretch in Spotsylvania County to allow Amtrak and Virginia Railway Express passenger trains to avoid being stuck behind slow-moving freight trains.

"States like Virginia have struggled for years to find ways to make rail service . . . a viable alternative to what seems like an always clogged Interstate 95 corridor," U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters said. "It's easy to see how a little improvement in this service could move a lot of traffic."

Peters, who took the train from Washington to Richmond on Tuesday afternoon, said the project will increase rail service at a time when Americans are driving less because of a spike in gas prices. She and Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) made the announcement at the historic railroad station on Main Street, a few blocks from downtown Richmond.

"Traveling in a car, that's just one way to travel," Kaine said. "We want to make it much easier for folks to have other choices. . . . What we're seeing is a tremendous uptick in demand for public transit and for rail."

Peters released new data that show Americans drove 3.6 percent less, or 9.6 billion fewer miles, in July 2008 than July 2007. Virginians drove 3.4 percent less, or 248 million fewer miles, in July 2008 than July 2007.

In Virginia, ridership on Amtrak has increased 22 percent and on VRE 16 percent in the past year, Kaine said. Nationally, Amtrak carried more passengers in July than in any single month in its history.

"Americans are continuing to cut back on the amount of driving that they are doing," Peters said. "It . . . poses for us a very tremendous challenge as they are shifting from driving to transit and commuter rail and passenger trains at a record level."

Peters said the federal government will provide $30 million in matching money for 15 passenger rail projects across the nation designed to reduce delays, expand capacity or add new service. Until now, she said, states could not qualify for federal matching funds for rail projects.

The Spotsylvania project, which will use $2 million in federal money and $11 million in state money, is expected to be completed in the middle of next year.

It is expected to make train service in the area more reliable, with on-time service expected to top 80 percent, Peters said.

Kaine estimates that once the improvements are finished, it will be faster to ride a train from downtown Richmond to Union Station than to drive from Leesburg to downtown Washington in rush-hour traffic.

"That's what we are shooting for, and we ought to be able to do it," he said. "And that would be a good thing for the two cities and all the real estate in between."

Virginia began a series of similar rail improvements to several stations and tracks between Richmond and Washington in 2000. Projects that have been completed or are underway are in Springfield, Quantico and south of the 14th Street Bridge.

Virginia Secretary of Transportation Pierce R. Homer said the upgrades will make it easier for people who commute between Richmond and Northern Virginia or Washington to get to and from work. In the past year, bus service began between Richmond and a VRE station in Fredericksburg.

"Rail service between the two capital cities will be more reliable," Peters said. "This grant will bring two great cities closer together in a way history and highways too often have failed to do."

In recent years, a downturn in the economy and rising prices for asphalt and steel have forced the state to spend money on maintenance that was supposed to be for construction. But money for the rail project had already been set aside.

In July, the General Assembly failed to come up with an agreement on how to pay for millions in road and transit projects across the state, including the most congested area of Northern Virginia.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company