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Norfolk, Va., officials push for high-speed train service to region

(The following story by Debbie Messina appeared on The Virginian-Pilot website on April 12, 2009.)

NORFOLK, Va. — Local leaders have renewed efforts to push for high speed passenger train service to Hampton Roads, which they say is critically important to the region.

More than $9.3 billion in federal stimulus money has been set aside for faster trains, and the state is wrapping up a study of rail options. Officials are working to make sure the region is not left off the map.

"It is the single most important transportation issue for the region's future," Norfolk Mayor Paul Fraim said.

To be left out of a high-speed rail network, officials say, would further isolate Hampton Roads, possibly dealing a serious blow to the region's economy. The region was basically bypassed by the interstate highway system when Interstates 95 and 85 were built.

Because the region is divided by water, serving both the Peninsula and South Hampton Roads may be prohibitively expensive. Which means tough, possibly divisive, decisions loom.

Southside leaders, including Fraim and the mayors of Virginia Beach and Suffolk, have lobbied for a connection directly to South Hampton Roads.

Peninsula leaders have been doing the same for their cities, said Newport News Mayor Joe Frank.

"I'd like to see if we can get high-speed rail to both the Peninsula and Southside," Frank said. "We need to do that cooperatively so it's not an either-or kind of approach."

"My preference is that everyone wins, but I don't know if that's realistic," Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms said.

Frank said he expects the leadership on both sides of the water to engage in discussions in the next several months.

"That's going to be a tough vote for the region," said E. Dana Dickens III, president of the Hampton Roads Partnership. "And it very likely could generate some difficult positions for people."

The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation is fin ishing a study of the alternatives for connecting Hampton Roads to Richmond and beyond via higher-speed rail, with maximum speeds of 90 mph.

Jennifer Pickett, a department spokeswoman, said a draft report should be available by summer, when public hearings would be scheduled. A preferred alternative would be presented in the fall based on the data and public comments, she said.

An earlier version of the report, dated November 2005, studied various options, including running a train along the Amtrak and CSX tracks that stop in Newport News; one that would run south from Richmond to Petersburg and then along the Norfolk Southern tracks generally following U.S. 460 and Va. 58; and one that runs along the Peninsula then crosses the water into South Hampton Roads.

That study showed the Southside train would cost $184 million and provide an hour and a half trip. The Peninsula train would be $181 million and the trip would take just over an hour. They would have similar ridership.

The alternative that includes a crossing at the James River using a new bridge was close to $600 million.

The state is not releasing updated figures yet. But DRPT officials confirmed preliminary estimates provided by Fraim that show the new cost of the Southside link at $475 million and the Peninsula, $330 million.

Fraim argues that the southern route makes better sense because the Southside has nearly 70 percent of the region's population and a higher concentration of employment centers and military and port operations. Plus, he said, the train could connect directly with the city's light-rail line, now under construction.

To demonstrate how the two rail lines could be integrated, the city has asked its urban design consultant to devise a multi-modal center at Harbor Park, where the high-speed rail would enter the downtown area.

"Having your different transportation modes connect is a significant advantage," said Norfolk Assistant City Manager Anne O'Dell.

While high-speed rail is not a new idea in Hampton Roads, it's one that has languished for several years because of shrinking transportation dollars. But it's been revived now that President Barack Obama supports public transportation and has set aside billions for faster trains.

Before high-speed rail comes to Hampton Roads, the Washington, D.C.-to-Richmond segment would have to be completed, state officials have said.

From Richmond, the rail could go south to North Carolina or east to Hampton Roads, or both.

"If it goes to North Carolina without coming to Hampton Roads, that would be a real blow to us," the partnership's Dickens said.

"It's going to be incumbent on all the 1.6 million people of Hampton Roads and the elected officials to get behind whatever the decision is on a preferred route so we do get service."

Monday, April 13, 2009

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