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Bullet trains still a dream

(The following article by Rob Walker was posted on the Virginia Business website on February 9.)

POTOMAC, Va. -- With Virginians facing longer delays on congested roads - 157 million hours stuck in traffic in 2003 according to one report - the political pressure is on to improve the stateís rail system.

But speedy bullet trains racing from one end of the commonwealth to another are not likely to be the fix for Virginiaís transportation troubles. "Given the potential ridership and the cost, I think high speed here would quickly be labeled a huge white elephant," says Michael S. Bronzini, professor of civil, environmental and infrastructure engineering at George Mason University. Another obstacle: gaining enough rights of way for new tracks to facilitate a first-rate passenger service.

What we need, says Bronzini and other proponents of passenger rail, is "higher speed" rail - reliable service that exceeds predictable driving time. "If you had intercity passenger rail service that was customer friendly and that ran reliably from Richmond to Washington in less than two hours, that would be the threshold," says Richard L. Beadles, longtime advocate of passenger rail and a member of the state Rail Advisory Board.

At that level, Amtrak passenger volume - which now approaches 250,000 passengers a year - would easily double, Beadles says. Connect Richmond with similar service to Williamsburg and Hampton Roads, and ridership in the "heartland corridor" from Richmond to Washington is likely to reach a million. "The numbers really explode," says Beadles.

This year may be the time when rail moves to center stage because of a confluence of circumstances including natural disasters, the Iraq war, fuel costs, and concerns over economic development and land-use planning. "We may have arrived at a kind of perfect storm in terms of the opportunity for high-speed or higher-speed rail," says Karen Rae, director of the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation. Following decades of "disinvestment in rail," notes Rae, "Now we are realizing that it needs to be part of our national transportation system."

Much of the state's growing demand for passenger rail service in the heartland corridor and Hampton Roads could be met by the Virginia Railway Express. Thatís the opinion of George Hoffer, economist and rail historian at Virginia Commonwealth University. The commuter service, originally designed to move passengers around traffic-choked Northern Virginia, now sends trains as far south as Fredericksburg. Theyíre filled with numbers of passengers originally predicted for the next decade. "The passengers are there," Hoffer says. The state, with some federal help, could expand VRE to Richmond and Hampton Roads. "That would be a busy line."

While itís not clear which direction Virginia will go to beef up its rail, the state is spending more money. At the end last year, the Commonwealth Transportation Board ratcheted up funding for rail projects that will improve passenger and freight service and that could provide a foundation for true high-speed rail in the future. The board recently approved $53.4 million for studies and projects through fiscal year 2008, according to Raeís agency.

This includes funding for a project that will have the greatest effect on freight and passenger travel through the heartland corridor: a third rail. It would run alongside the two lines that already carry freight and passengers along the route parallel to Interstate 95. Total cost of this project alone, Rae says, will top $400 million.

For now, her agency is pleased to predict that, when complete, the recently approved projects will save more than 17 million gallons of fuel a year while removing more than 2 million cars and almost a million trucks from state highways. The reduced traffic also means savings on highway maintenance and reduced pollution.

Near the top of the list is $2.8 million for new track switches at CSX Corp.'s Acca Yard in Richmond, an infamous bottleneck for passenger and freight traffic. Another project would improve rail access to Hampton Roads' thriving ports while enhancing opportunities for better rail service south to North Carolina, a state thatís aggressively pursuing rail connections through Virginia to the busy Northeast corridor.

Virginia recently earmarked $750,000 for an environmental impact study on connecting Richmond to Raleigh via a high-speed rail corridor. North Carolina has spent $2.4 million on environmental impact studies of the corridor from Charlotte to Washington and is spending another $3 million on studies of the Richmond-to-Raleigh line.

Conservative estimates from studies done in North Carolina show that ridership on a reliable, higher-speed line from Raleigh to the Northeast would operate in the black, says David Foster, environmental programs manager for the North Carolina Department of Transportation's Rail Division. North Carolina is so anxious to make the connection that it has helped fund environmental studies in Virginia from the state line to Petersburg. "If Virginia continues to make the necessary improvements from Richmond to Washington, this becomes a prudent investment," Foster says.

Rae credits business interests in Richmond, Hampton Roads and along the heartland corridor with helping drive rail development. "We see ourselves on the end of a large, tenuous cul de sac, with a huge port and tremendous military presence hanging out here," says Brad Face, vice chair of the development group The Future of Hampton Roads. "We need access to Richmond and Washington and on to the Northeast. We need relief from congestion, and we are very much aware of the cost of additional [river] crossings. Moving freight and passenger traffic onto rails will be a big help."

Virginia approved its first dedicated pool of money for rail - $23.2 million - last year, and progress is expected to continue under the transportation-focused administration of Gov. Timothy M. Kaine. Still, rail proponents warn that major obstacles remain. The Bush administration tried unsuccessfully to eliminate funds for Amtrak and has been antagonistic to passenger rail in general, citing primarily what it sees as a losing investment in terms of costs versus benefits.

In the 25 years before 9/11, of $782 billion in federal money spent on transportation, 48 percent went to highways, 22 percent to aviation and just 4 percent to rail. "We have to hope the next administration is able to understand the need for a core [rail] system like the national highway system with real federal participation," says Rae. The States for Passenger Rail coalition, which represents 25 states "is getting audiences" with key leaders in Washington, she adds. If the federal government matched state funds in the same way it does for highways - at 60 to 80 percent - "We would be a long way toward the third rail," says Rae.

In Beadlesí opinion, the greatest obstacle in Virginia is CSX. "There has to be some reconciliation between legitimate freight interests and public passenger interests, which are also legitimate and largely ignored," he says. CSX spokesman Robert Sullivan says there will always be challenges in running freight and passenger trains on the same tracks. "They are by their nature different," he says. "It's difficult to co-exist."

Growth in freight and passenger demand has meant more congestion, and CSX's highest priority as a for-profit business that owns the tracks in the heartland corridor is delivering freight as quickly and reliably as possible. That is not detrimental to the traveling public, Sullivan says. "Every piece of public policy you see says we need to get freight off the highways. That's our strong suit."

Sullivan disagrees with those who contend that Virginia's rail fund is directed too heavily toward freight projects. In its first year of dispersing the $23.2 million in dedicated funds, the Commonwealth Transportation Board awarded more than $17 million, or about 73 percent, to freight rail and the remaining $6 million for improvements to passenger service. Projects that benefit freight also will benefit passenger trains, asserts Sullivan, by eliminating bottlenecks and permitting higher-speed travel. The third rail, he adds, would alleviate a lot of problems.

Until then, Rae characterizes Virginiaís Rail Advisory Board as a meeting place for all rail interests, including freight haulers. "We are together in the same room and we have made significant progress," she says. "I think we are realizing we have more in common than we have differences."

Friday, February 10, 2006

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