Agreement Reached on State-Funded Intercity Rail Service in Va.

By Jennifer Buske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 26, 2009

Mass transit options should increase by year's end, as Virginia officials finalize an agreement for the first state-funded intercity train service in the state.

The Commonwealth Transportation Board has allocated $17.2 million in its six-year transportation plan for a three-year pilot program to run two trains along the corridors of interstates 95 and 81. The trains would travel from Richmond and Lynchburg, respectively, to Washington and on to New York, stopping at some Virginia Railway Express stations and Union Station, said Jennifer Pickett, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation.

"Transportation needs to be about choices for moving freight and for moving people," Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) said this week in announcing the plan. "In the past, Virginia has not been as big an investor in mass transit, but we've been able to shift that balance and put a greater percentage of resources into our rail and public transportation."

The project is one that Kaine has advocated since he took office more than three years ago, and transportation officials said they hope to have the service running between October and December. If it is deemed successful, state officials said, the service will continue after the three-year pilot.

"I am a pro-rail and a pro-public transit person," Kaine said. "I think if you look at the future of transportation in this country, it will be about providing more options. . . . I'm very excited about this."

To begin the service, the state has had to make about $31 million worth of station and rail improvements along the Lynchburg line, which is owned by Norfolk Southern, said Pierce R. Homer, Virginia secretary of transportation. The state is close to completing $131 million in improvements on the Richmond-based line run by CSX Corp.

"The commonwealth has made a significant investment in this corridor, which has led us to the ability to run more trains," said Kevin Page, chief of rail transportation for the state. "We need to move forward and make use of our investments."

Homer said the final piece of the project will be contracting with Amtrak to operate the service. Amtrak owns the Northeast rail corridor on which the trains would operate.

"Amtrak is thrilled and very pleased that Virginia is going to support intercity passenger service; this is a very big thing and will be a boon for people in Virginia and for Amtrak," said Cliff Black, a spokesman for Amtrak. "We are working closely with [the state] and hope to have an agreement in place soon."

Schedules for the service have not been finalized because they must be coordinated with freight trains, Amtrak and VRE service, Pickett said. Ticket prices will vary based on the route but are likely to follow Amtrak pricing guidelines, she said.

Under the proposal, the Lynchburg train would leave about 7:43 a.m. and reach Union Station about 11:20 a.m., Pickett said. The Richmond-based train would leave about 7 a.m. and arrive at Union Station by 9:15 a.m. Both trains would continue to New York, and then turn around and arrive back in the District between 4 and 5 p.m. to take commuters home.

The trains would also stop at some VRE stations along the Manassas and Fredericksburg lines, giving commuters more options. Riders wanting to take the state-funded trains could pay a $10 "step-up" fee as they now do when boarding Amtrak-operated trains.

"I'm very much in favor of this," said John Jenkins, who has served on the VRE Operations Board for nearly 25 years. "It will give us more connections to Washington and New York, and I think that is one of the great advantages of it. This is a major accomplishment that will help move people in and out of the region."

Kaine said implementing the service is likely to pave the way for other mass transit projects, particularly now that the country is under an administration that, he said, "recognizes the value" of rail investments.

"We've been in a situation with some conflict between Congress and the future of rail, but I think that has changed," he said. "This administration is a real believer in passenger rail."

State and rail officials said the service would also boost the economy of the communities served, especially in the Lynchburg corridor, an area with less mass transit.

"This is an incredibly important economic development tool for us, and I believe it will open more economic doors for all of us in the commonwealth," said Del. Shannon Valentine (D-Lynchburg). "There has been a significant demand for this service, and it's exciting to see we are very close to seeing this come to fruition."

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