VRE budget would maintain fares, add cars to trains

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 24, 2010; 12:21 AM

Virginia Railway Express presented a preliminary fiscal 2012 budget Friday that lengthens some trains, preserves fares and lowers the subsidy for some of the jurisdictions that are members of the commuter-rail service.

The roughly $87.7 million budget is down almost $4 million from last year, largely because of a decrease in state and federal funding, VRE chief executive Dale Zehner said. Last year's budget was also inflated by the purchase of several locomotives.

The new budget is based on an average daily ridership of 17,350 - a 7 percent increase over the last budget - and on the assumption that state funding will drop by $2.5 million, Zehner said.

The budget would maintain current fares but allow for VRE, which has been plagued by crowding, to add a car to two Manassas Line trains and to a Fredericksburg Line train, adding about 450 seats, Zehner said.

Extending trains and adding new ones has been a challenge for VRE because of funding and lack of storage space. Zehner said one morning train that goes to the District will turn around and then be stored at Broad Run to free up space at Union Station. Zehner said he is also budgeting $3.2 million to add a switch at the L'Enfant storage track that will allow trains to back out of Union Station and be stored at L'Enfant Station.

"I'm very happy with the way things came together," said Paul V. Milde III, chairman of the VRE Operations Board, which recommended approval of the budget Friday. "Even with cuts at the state and federal level, we're in an enviable financial situation that allows us to expand service in small ways."

Milde, however, said that expanding capacity in small ways will help for only so long.

"The way we are growing, we are going to be maxed out, and the only solution will be to spend more money on cars and storage," Milde said, noting VRE's long-term budget forecast calls for a 4 percent fare increase within the next six years.

Many jurisdictions' subsidies to VRE will also fall next year, Zehner said. Zehner said many subsidies were able to come down because of increases in fare revenue and savings elsewhere in the budget. Spotsylvania County joining VRE and becoming the ninth contributing member also helped lower subsidies, he said.

Prince William County is projected to pay almost $5.9 million, down 8 percent from fiscal 2011, VRE officials said. Manassas is projected to pay about $818,000, down 6 percent, and Manassas Park is projected to pay almost $567,000, 4 percent more than in the current fiscal year. Subsidies are based on ridership numbers in each of the eight contributing jurisdictions.

VRE's budget runs on a fiscal year that begins July 1. This past calendar year, however, has been an eventful one for the commuter-rail service. VRE welcomed the first of 20 new locomotives this summer and in July switched operators to Keolis Rail Services America. Last month, VRE hit a daily ridership record at 19,540 Nov. 16 but was also plagued with seven significant delays in which people were stranded for an hour or more.

The VRE budget will now move to the Northern Virginia and Potomac and Rappahannock transportation commissions next month. After that, it needs to be approved by all participating jurisdictions.

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