The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Rail is critical to moving Northern Virginia forward

An Amtrak train on the rusting Long Bridge crosses over the trail that runs parallel to the GW Memorial Parkway in Arlington. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Danny Plaugher is executive director of Virginians for High Speed Rail. Scott Surovell, a Democrat, represents Fairfax in the Virginia Senate and serves on the Virginia-North Carolina Interstate High Speed Rail Compact.

You don’t have to sit in traffic on Interstate 95 or Interstate 66 very long to learn that we have a congestion problem on our interstates. Traffic gets a little bit worse every year, and the numbers back that up.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, since 1990 vehicles mile traveled on the interstates of Northern Virginia and Greater Washington have increased 65 percent, and lane miles have increased 31 percent.

In the past 10 years, we have spent $4.5 billion (plus tolls) on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, the Springfield Mixing Bowl and the Interstate 495 high-occupancy toll Lanes, and congestion is unchanged. To pave our way back to even 1990s traffic levels on our interstates would theoretically cost us at least $10 billion, most likely much more, and it would clearly just induce more traffic.

History has proved that paving our way out of traffic just does not work. Multimodal investments that include transit and intercity modes are critical.

Even if you do not use Amtrak or commute on the Virginia Railway Express (VRE), you should be thankful we are investing. Amtrak and VRE remove 2 million passenger miles from our roads every day — one entire lane of cars on I-95 and I-66. Imagine traffic without that.

Virginia’s Amtrak and VRE services also generate more than $825 million in economic benefits, create and sustain thousands of jobs, prevent the release of more than 126,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions and reduce our fuel consumption by more than 14 million gallons.

Plus, our future workforce does not want cars: One of every five driving-eligible Virginians under the age of 35 does not have a drivers’ license. Amazon recognized this when choosing the Crystal City Metro and VRE stations for its secondary headquarters. Investing in rail will ensure the benefits of Amazon’s HQ2 will stretch from Arlington to Richmond.

The largest rail bottleneck on the East Coast is the Long Bridge. The commonwealth’s next top transportation priority needs to be two new tracks over the Potomac River. And, we need to complete the construction on the D.C. to Richmond — DC2RVA — higher-speed rail corridor.

We are making progress. In June, the Commonwealth Transportation Board approved $774 million in projects to sustain, improve and expand our Amtrak passenger rail network and hundreds of millions to support and improve our Virginia Railway Express service.

This funding will sustain Amtrak service for 6.8 million Virginians, increase Amtrak service by 16 percent and upgrade our rail stations. It also invests heavily in our rail infrastructure to increase our passenger trains’ reliability, safety and speed. Finally, it builds more than 11 percent of improvements to the DC2RVA high-speed rail corridor and invests more than $249 million as a down payment on the Long Bridge.

Combined, these two projects will nearly triple the amount of commuter rail service across the Potomac River, including the addition of eight reverse-commute MARC trains from Maryland, almost double the amount of Amtrak service connecting Virginia and the Northeast, make weekend VRE service possible and enhance service all the way to Atlanta while greatly improving the reliability of our commuter and intercity passenger trains.

Virginia is doing everything it can, but it needs a strong federal partner. The nation’s interstate system would never have been built without the federal government paying 80 percent of the construction costs. Today, Virginians have been forced to fund nearly all of these rail projects with very little support from our federal partners. That needs to change.

The 2020 Surface Transportation Reauthorization must include measurable resources dedicated to a federal passenger rail improvement program so that states don’t have to go it alone. A strong federal funding partner will be vital to expanding the Long Bridge and completing construction on the DC2RVA high-speed rail corridor.

That’s why we need infrastructure weeks to end and leadership to begin.