The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Virginia is a rising leader in passenger rail. Here’s how it happened.

A $3.7 billion rail deal is the latest in a set of policies and investments that transcended election cycles and party lines.

An Amtrak train on the rusting Long Bridge crosses over the Mount Vernon Trail in Virginia. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

Ask Shannon Valentine how passenger rail rose to the top of Virginia’s transportation priority list and she will take you to the crawling traffic of Interstate 95.

Gridlock has plagued the highway for decades, endangering the sanity of commuters while threatening the quality of life and economic growth of the region. The addition of high occupancy toll lanes in the past decade increased capacity, yet traffic jams persist.

Valentine, Virginia’s transportation secretary, said widening is no longer an option for the corridor, which she said averages more than 350,000 people daily. One lane in each direction for 50 miles would cost $12.5 billion, she said, citing a study that looked at possible improvements to a highway that connects the state capital to the nation’s capital.

Amtrak is a top travel choice in the Northeast. With an ally in the White House, it wants trains in the rest of America.

“Not only was it unaffordable, the worst part was that by the time construction was completed in 10 years, the highway would be just as congested as it is today,” Valentine said. “So with that information, we really thought about how we could address the congestion and the mobility along the 95 corridor. And that is how we got to rail.”

The quest to get more residents on trains has earned Virginia accolades and a national spotlight, particularly as new transportation priorities in Washington elevate multimodal travel with an eye on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Rail experts say the state is becoming a case study as Amtrak, which operates the passenger rail service, tries to roll out a similar model in other states.

In March, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) signed a $3.7 billion, wide-ranging deal with Amtrak, commuter rail operator Virginia Railway Express and freight railroad CSX, promising to double passenger service in the state within the decade and create a path to separate freight and passenger traffic.

Virginia seals deal for $3.7 billion rail plan, including new Potomac River bridge

The investment, the biggest in passenger rail service in the state, follows a decade of state-supported intercity trains connecting Richmond and other cities, such as Roanoke and Norfolk, to Washington and the rest of the Northeast.

“Virginia is a model for the nation in recognizing the role passenger rail can play in connecting people and communities,” Amtrak chief executive William J. Flynn said at the March signing of the Virginia deal. Under the agreement, Amtrak will contribute nearly $1 billion to the rail program and commit to operate a minimum of 30 years in the state.

Virginia’s proximity to Washington, a major Amtrak hub, and to the nation’s busiest passenger rail corridor, the Northeast, is an asset to the state, but the motor for advancing the vision has been the state’s consistent commitment, rail advocates say.

‘Rail has transcended any partisanship’

Virginia’s plan to create a robust network of passenger trains within the decade goes hand-in-hand with Amtrak’s own aspirations to reach more cities and increase train frequencies.

Virginia exemplifies Amtrak’s growth strategy of focusing on adding short-haul trips that compete with car rides and flights in urban corridors. The state is not only a willing partner to the passenger railroad — it has taken charge of its tracks, purchasing hundreds of miles of passenger right of way from private railroads and negotiating agreements to expand service.

Virginia is rethinking its road and rail networks in planning for the long term

Rail experts and advocates say the policies and investments of the past decades set a foundation for Northam and his passenger rail program. What sets Virginia apart, they say, is that when it comes to rail, Democrats and Republicans have found common ground.

“The importance of rail has transcended any partisanship,” said Daniel L. Plaugher, executive director of the nonprofit Virginians for High Speed Rail, which has helped build a growing rail advocacy community in the state. “Whether they’re a Republican from Southwest or a Democrat from Hampton Roads, everybody has wanted to bring better rail service to their communities.”

Rail has long brought together political rivals in Richmond, said John Watkins, a former Republican state senator and delegate who served more than three decades in the Virginia legislature. A big incentive to act was worsening congestion, he said.

“We’ve still got work to do,” said Watkins, who retired in 2016 and helped create the Virginia-North Carolina High-Speed Rail Compact, which examines multistate initiatives. “I just wish that we had invested more time, effort and money than we did. But we have made some progress.”

Where funding is a major impediment for many states to commit to passenger rail operations, Virginia has long put state dollars in such initiatives.

Washington must be part of plan to expand nation’s passenger rail network, says Amtrak president

In 2004, Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) created the state’s first fund for investment in rail infrastructure. In 2011, under Gov. Bob McDonnell (R), Virginia became one of a handful of states to create a dedicated funding source for rail projects, using a percentage of the state’s retail sales and use tax.

Last year, the General Assembly passed Northam’s Omnibus transportation bill, which streamlined transportation funding through the Commonwealth Transportation Fund, providing increased revenue for transit and rail.

“They had a vision and that vision has continued to evolve and grow due to the political commitment over multiple election cycles,” said Joe McAndrew, a transportation policy expert with the Greater Washington Partnership, a civic alliance of the region’s top chief executives. “There is predictability and consistency in the commitment to making sure that Virginia’s transportation system is able to compete.”

Virginia’s $3.7 billion rail plan called a ‘game changer.’ Here’s what we know about it.

Efforts to expand intercity passenger service date to the late 1990s, when Republican Gov. Jim Gilmore led negotiations with CSX and Amtrak for track upgrades, then dedicated $65 million to improving service in the D.C.-Richmond corridor.

Service expansions occurred under the administrations of both parties. Democrat Tim Kaine launched the first state-sponsored service, which connected D.C. to Lynchburg. McDonnell oversaw service expansions to Norfolk. Under Democrat Terry McAuliffe, rail service to Roanoke began in 2017.

Before the pandemic, Virginia budgeted about $10 million annually for the operation of its six trains and four routes connecting Richmond, Newport News, Norfolk and Roanoke to Washington and the rest of the Northeast.

Trains are accessible to nearly 80 percent of Virginia’s population, up from just under 50 percent a decade ago. Before the pandemic hit, regional Amtrak trains in Virginia carried nearly one million passengers in 2019, a record in the state’s 12-year-old rail program.

Expanding a bottleneck in the Northeast

Virginia’s plans for the next decade include nearly hourly trips between Richmond and Washington, a boost to the VRE commuter train service, groundwork for future service between Petersburg and North Carolina, and the return of passenger rail to Christiansburg in Southwest Virginia.

At the heart of the deal is the expansion of the Long Bridge, a two-track, 117-year-old rail span over the Potomac River owned by CSX, and the biggest rail bottleneck in the Washington region. Virginia plans to build a second bridge by 2030, parallel to the old one, to be used by passenger trains.

A newly created rail authority will oversee the expansion, the bridge project and other track and station improvements across the state.

New regional rail vision aims to bring D.C., Maryland and Virginia closer together. But can it happen?

To advance the Long Bridge project, all members of the Virginia delegation supported a congressional bill last year to allow the conveyance of National Park Service land to Virginia and the District to construct the new bridge.

“This was a truly bipartisan effort,” said Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), who co-sponsored the bill with Rep. Don Beyer, a Democrat. Wittman said getting cars off the road is critical to reducing congestion and “our best means of doing so is through rail.”

“As a daily commuter myself, I know for a fact that traffic doesn’t care if you’re a Democrat or a Republican,” Wittman said. “Reducing traffic congestion is one area where we can set aside our differences.”

Valentine, who as a state delegate pushed to bring Amtrak to her hometown of Lynchburg, said that looking into a future — when Virginia’s population is expected to rise from 8.5 million to 10 million by 2040 — leaders must focus on giving residents options to efficiently move around the state.

“If we can create reliable, dependable, hourly service between Richmond and D.C. up into the Northeast Corridor and across the Commonwealth … I really believe that is going to make us healthier, more connected and more competitive,” Valentine said.