A plan to extend commuter rail service to Bealeton, announced Tuesday as part of Gov. James S. Gilmore III's $2 billion transportation package for the state, is getting a wary reception from local officials who say that operating the system once it's built likely would require a 2 percent tax on Fauquier County gasoline purchases.
Officials say they hope Gilmore will commit more than the millions needed in capital costs to extend service on Virginia Railway Express from Manassas and will find ways for the county to pay its share of the operating costs without new taxes.
In the coming months, debate is likely to focus not only on the cost of participating but also on whether the service would bring unwanted residential development and traffic to the southern part of the county.
"This is election season, not tax-raising season," said Board of Supervisors Chairman Larry L. Weeks (R-Scott), describing the concerns raised by local officials at a July work session with VRE representatives.
The service, run on existing freight rail tracks, is overseen jointly by two state-chartered transportation commissions. In correspondence after the July meeting, VRE officials said Fauquier would have to join one of the commissions to receive new rail service.
And although membership has its privileges, it also has its cost. Stephen T. Roberts, VRE director of operations, said the county would be required by the state law authorizing the transportation districts to impose a 2 percent fuel tax. Proceeds from that tax in neighboring counties with rail service go toward operating VRE.
Weeks said county officials had broached the idea of contracting with the Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission for railway services, sidestepping the fuel tax requirement. But Al Harf, executive director of the commission, said in an interview Tuesday that the fee-for-service arrangement had never been done and likely would be discouraged by the commissions. The Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission and the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission oversee VRE operations.
"Membership is the stated preference of the commission," he said.
Weeks said other funding ideas also have been floated.
"We were interested in trading property and the taxes on our property for the annual contributions," Weeks said.
But it is not clear whether that would pay the bill. Railway officials said the annual operating costs for the new line, which would carry passengers into Union Station in Washington, could reach $400,000. A one-way ticket to Washington would run about $6.70, but the fares paid by the estimated 300 daily riders from Bealeton would not cover the operating costs, VRE spokesman Matt Benka said.
Gilmore, in his speech Tuesday outlining his transportation priorities, pledged as much as $50 million in state general funds for the capital costs of extending the line, which would cover eight new miles of track, a rail yard and a train station in Bealeton.
A recent study by the local Fauquier County Chamber of Commerce estimated that 51 percent of the work force in Fauquier commutes toward Washington. Local officials and residents were wary of the cost but enthusiastic about the possibilities of new railway service.
"We really need something," said Fred Ashrafi, owner of International Market and Deli in Warrenton. "All the time you have to drive in if you want to do something. This would be nice."
Janet Jackson, a court reporter from Remington, said Gilmore's proposal "was brilliant. . . . Traffic is a big problem."
"It could get a lot of cars off the road," said Supervisor David C. Mangum (R-Lee), who is about to retire from the board. He said he anticipated that slow-growth advocates would fight the proposal because it could increase residential development in an area of the county where farmland already is disappearing.
"You'll get opposition to anything here," he said. "If you built an outhouse, you'd have opposition."
Josephine F. "Jolly" deGive, director of planning services for the Piedmont Environmental Council, said that because encroaching development from Prince William County is threatening to change the character of the Bealeton area, the rail proposal would have to be closely scrutinized.
"This is something we are going to have to look at closely," she said. "This is one of our best farming areas. . . . And we have to protect that."
CAPTION: Passengers disembark from a VRE train. The governor has proposed extending the service from Manassas to Bealeton.