VRE Lines Up For Stimulus Locomotives

New locomotives would allow Virginia Railway Express to serve more passengers.
New locomotives would allow Virginia Railway Express to serve more passengers. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
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By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 22, 2009

As Congress and President Obama work out an economic stimulus package that is expected to include billions of dollars for mass transit and rail, one Virginia project that has been pushed by state officials and transit industry executives is the purchase of 15 locomotives for Virginia Railway Express.

VRE runs trains from Manassas and Fredericksburg to Alexandria, Crystal City and Union Station in downtown Washington. Like commuter rail across the country, VRE has experienced significant ridership increases, but it had to raise fares by 7 percent this month. Average daily ridership for the four months ending in October was 15,709, up 12 percent from the same period the year before, according to officials.

Transit advocates say infrastructure projects that are ready to go within 90 days of federal money becoming available have the best chance of being funded. Fifteen locomotives for VRE would cost $63 million.

Last February, VRE signed a contract with MotivePower, based in Boise, Idaho, to buy as many as 20 replacement locomotives, but the agency has had funding for just five. The additional engines would allow VRE to increase capacity by running eight- and 10-car trains. Most VRE train sets are six cars.

The new engines are "stronger and more powerful, and we could add capacity to trains by lengthening them without having to add trains," spokesman Mark Roeber said.

The five new locomotives are expected to roll out on the tracks in 2010, and if VRE receives stimulus funds for 15 more, they could arrive in 16 to 24 months, he said.

"VRE does qualify for the funding on the basis that we have an existing contract for five locomotives with the option for 15, so we could immediately issue a task order for the construction of the additional units," Roeber said.

Roeber said the premise of the stimulus bill makes new locomotives for VRE a perfect fit. All of the components are made in the United States, he said.

"We would infuse that money immediately back into American companies who would be making the components and parts for the locomotives," he said. "In essence, job creating through manufacturing orders."

Each weekday, VRE operates 30 trains over two branch lines serving 18 stations in eight Northern Virginia jurisdictions. VRE is a partnership of the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission and the Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission, which represent the Northern Virginia counties and municipalities in the VRE service area. Members of both entities sit on the VRE operations board, which governs VRE. Daily operations and capital projects are financed from a combination of federal, state and local grants and through the sale of tickets.

VRE officials said they have briefed their congressional delegations, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and state transportation officials and also sought support from local legislators.

On Thursday, Democrats in Congress rolled out details of the proposed stimulus package totaling $825 billion, a rapid response to Obama's plea to tackle national economic woes.

House and Senate leaders have pledged to have the stimulus bill ready for Obama's signature by mid-February.

A written summary showed $30 billion for highway construction, $10 billion for mass transit and rail, and $3 billion for airport improvements.

Roeber said the amount for mass transit includes $6 billion for capital acquisitions, such as rail car purchases, $2 billion for system upgrades and $1 billion for operational necessities for aging transit systems. It was unclear, he said, whether the domestic spending would be routed through state governments, then to municipalities and local authorities, or be routed through federal transportation formulas.

Roeber said he hoped the money would be channeled through the states because the VRE project is on Kaine's "short list of projects."

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