For people in the Fredericksburg area, fare increases and heat-related delays on the Virginia Railway Express commuter train have extra bite. That's because the average VRE rider in the area is like Cecilia Kirkman: Her monthly ticket to get to and from work is $200, and her daily round-trip commute is 31/2 hours.
That means fare increases going into effect June 28 and more frequent train tardiness this year take a higher toll on outlying commuters than on those closer to Washington.
"It seems like it's gotten much worse in the past year, with more delays and much more crowding," said Kirkman, 43, a researcher who rides VRE between Brooke Station in Stafford and L'Enfant Plaza.
Officials with VRE, Virginia's 12-year-old commuter train service, have been getting an earful of feedback -- primarily negative -- since they announcing this spring that they would raise fares. Depending on how far a passenger rides, tickets will cost 4 percent to 11 percent more. In addition, the fare change ends a deal that allowed VRE ticket holders to board Amtrak trains free. Starting June 28, riders must pay $1 to board Amtrak -- which is faster and offers more comfortable coaches than VRE does, though it arrives late much more often.
Lou Hoffman has been riding from Quantico to Union Station for his job as a federal court system administrator since VRE service began in 1992. Because both his stops are on the Amtrak route, the 52-year-old Stafford resident will pay 29 percent more starting next month -- once the fare increase and extra $1 on Amtrak are added.
"So my monthly pass is going up from $175 to $225 to keep the same service," said Hoffman, who voiced other frequently heard complaints about broken machines and uncomfortable seats. VRE "has gotten better, but 10 to 12 years into it, you're still having growing pains."
VRE passengers are also upset about cuts to other services, such as holiday transport. With ridership ballooning beyond capacity, the VRE experience is now more crowded: At rush hour, hundreds of passengers must stand, VRE spokesman Mark Roeber said.
This is also a steamy time -- literally -- to be talking about VRE service. CSX Inc., which owns VRE's Fredericksburg Line tracks, requires trains to travel slower once temperatures top 90 degrees. Roeber said that's the main reason that 73 percent of trains between Fredericksburg and Washington were on time last month. Norfolk Southern Corp., which owns the Manassas Line track, does not impose heat restrictions, and last month those trains were prompt 96 percent of the time, he said.
VRE and officials who support it are trying to assuage riders' discontent. They held a town hall meeting Wednesday in Stafford and promised that single-level rail cars will soon be replaced with double-deckers with more seats. At the meeting, VRE chief executive Dale Zehner said the Fredericksburg area is one of the rail system's main future markets. "This is the growth area," Zehner said.
VRE's growing pains are just part of a growing transportation debate as the Fredericksburg area becomes increasingly an exurb of Washington.
The region -- Fredericksburg and Stafford and Spotsylvania counties -- exceeded federal ozone standards this year for the first time, which means local officials will have to take car emissions into consideration when approving new roads. Motorists will also soon be required to have car emissions systems inspected periodically.
Officials are pushing harder for the state Department of Transportation to extend carpool lanes from Dumfries south to Fredericksburg or Spotsylvania.
But the transportation debate has many facets, reflecting the region's often-conflicted sense of identity.
For example, some residents are lobbying for Spotsylvania to link up to VRE, which would require the county to build a station and then chip in about $450,000 a year in subsidies. Many VRE riders see that as fair, because residents of Spotsylvania and Fauquier counties make up 20 percent of about 8,000 people who ride the VRE every day, and neither county contributes. Many riders say they are angry and resentful over sharing scarce space on trains and in commuter lots with patrons from counties that don't help fund the system.
Merl Witt of Spotsylvania, who heads the Committee of 500, a county government watchdog group, thinks it makes sense for his county to link up with VRE. "If we talk about regional cooperation, we should be part of the solution," he said. "Also, it would encourage more people to ride the VRE if we had a station here."
But others say the region's focus should be on boosting the economy -- improving clogged roads and encouraging companies with higher-paying jobs to relocate there so workers' commutes don't have to begin before sunrise.
"What's the role of any jurisdiction in supporting people traveling outside the jurisdiction vs. people traveling within?" asked Robert F. Hagan, chairman of the Spotsylvania County Board of Supervisors. "Helping people move within Spotsylvania has more priority than helping people move to Richmond or Washington."
Hagan and other supervisors who promised voters they would not raise taxes are concerned about a 2 percent gas tax that communities participating in VRE are required to levy.
Others say growth inevitably requires more spending.
"I am a conservative, anti-tax Republican, and I'm in favor of fare increases," said James Hazzard, 48, a Stafford resident who works for the Department of Education and has ridden the same route Kirkman does for 14 years.
"The VRE isn't getting enough state and federal support, and they need more money," he said. "The quality of service is declining, and ridership is growing by the month. It's a good little railroad."