Study of VRE extension to Gainesville, Haymarket approved

By Jennifer Buske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 21, 2010

A proposal to extend Virginia Railway Express into western Prince William County is one step closer to reality after a vote by rail officials Friday.

During its monthly meeting, the commuter rail service's Operations Board authorized a roughly $2.7 million contract with STV/Ralph Whitehead Associates, a consulting firm that will run an environmental study and provide preliminary engineering services on the proposal to extend VRE 11 miles on Norfolk Southern's B line into the Gainesville-Haymarket area.

"I think this will be one of the most significant stations in VRE's history one of these days, and we'll put more people on at this location than at any other station," said VRE board member and Prince William Supervisor W.S. Covington III (R-Brentsville). "I think this [extension] is critical."

The environmental and engineering study, which the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation is funding with the help of an $875,000 in-kind match from Norfolk Southern, will be done in phases. The first half will focus on possible extension options, station sites, impact on the environment and cost. Once complete, the board will have to authorize the findings before the consulting firm can move to the second phase, which will include the environmental assessment and preliminary engineering. The first phase could take up to two years.

VRE officials said they are using a phased approach so the board and the county can reevaluate the proposed extension once a more concrete cost estimate is available. Prince William's subsidy to VRE could increase with the proposed extension, assuming there would be an influx in riders.

Covington said he thinks the county, which recently adopted the project into its comprehensive plan, will remain onboard. He said many Manassas Line trains have standing room only. Bringing commuter rail to the county's western end, he said, could lead to other rail expansions that could possibly connect Prince William with Dulles International Airport or the Tysons Corner area.

The Gainesville-Haymarket project, which could cost up to $244 million, would add a track to the B line within existing right of way and up to three stations, near Innovation @ Prince William Technology Park, Nissan Pavilion and the Interstate 66-Route 15 area. VRE officials said the expansion has the potential to take up to 5,000 cars off the road daily.

Although fares have not been discussed, VRE officials said that Gainesville commuters would pay about $220 a month and that riders from Haymarket would pay slightly more. The number of trains that would operate on the proposed line is unclear.

VRE officials said the initial push would be to get commuter rail to Gainesville. Then it would be a matter of cost and public interest to extend it to Haymarket. No money is secured for any of the project, and some Haymarket residents have opposed it, saying it would add too much train traffic in their back yard.

"My home backs up to the tracks, so if they put a second set of tracks in, it will encroach on my property," Haymarket resident Pat Carney said during an earlier public comment session on the proposal. "I've taken VRE, and it won't bring any value into Haymarket because people will just come in to ride and leave. I think it will have a terrible impact on our little town."

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