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Schism grows over regional high-speed rail route

(The following story by Debbie Messina and Harry Minium appeared on The Virginian-Pilot website on May 27, 2009.)

NORFOLK, Va. — A split between South Hampton Roads and the Peninsula over high-speed rail is widening now that the heads of seven southside cities and counties have agreed to push for a route south of the James River.

Without a political consensus on a route, the region's chances could be further delayed at a time when federal money is available for a higher-speed rail project.

Virginia Beach City Council discussed the issue Tuesday and plans to vote next month. The Beach, Norfolk, Chesapeake, Portsmouth, Suffolk, Franklin and Isle of Wight County want higher-speed passenger train service to extend from Richmond along the U.S. 460 corridor and into downtown Norfolk, bypassing the Peninsula.

Many Peninsula leaders want higher-speed rail extended north of the James River, from Richmond to Newport News, along a route that already supports Amtrak passenger service.

Norfolk Mayor Paul Fraim said a split was inevitable. The Southside Mayors and Chairs Committee unanimously agreed last week to adopt resolutions supporting a south side route.

"On most issues, I believe you can get a regional consensus," he said. "But on some issues, you're just not going to agree."

Newport News Mayor Joe Frank said the move by the south side "is very unfortunate."

"I was hoping to get together as a region to address this regionally versus separately," he said.

Frank, who supports extending rail along both routes, said Peninsula leaders will gather soon to discuss the issue.

The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation is finishing a study, called an Environmental Impact Statement, of the alternatives for connecting Hampton Roads to higher-speed rail, with maximum speeds of 90 mph.

A draft should be ready this summer, when public hearings would be scheduled. A preferred route would be selected in the fall based on the data and public comments, said Jennifer Pickett, a department spokeswoman.

"My hope is the decision would be made through the EIS process on the merits of the two routes," E. Dana Dickens III, Hampton Roads Partnership president and a Commonwealth Transportation Board member, said last month.

"If the region gets put into a position to take a hard vote on which route, that's going to be a tough vote for the region."

Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms said, "We need to talk to the Peninsula and see if something can be worked out. If we can't, the vast majority of the population is served where? Over here."

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 which would run south from Richmond to Petersburg and then along the Norfolk Southern tracks generally following U.S. 460 and U.S. 58; and one that runs along the Peninsula then crosses the water into South Hampton Roads.

That study showed the south side train would cost $184 million and the Peninsula train would be $181 million. The alternative that includes a crossing at the James River using a new bridge was close to $600 million.

The state has not released updated figures. But rail and public transportation officials confirmed preliminary estimates that show the new cost of the south side link at $475 million and the Peninsula, $330 million.

The state's first rail priority, however, is upgrading service to higher speeds between Richmond and Washington, D.C. In Washington, passengers can transfer to high-speed rail, upward of 110 mph, to northeastern cities.

More than $8 billion in federal stimulus money has been set aside for faster trains. Guidelines for applying for the money are expected next month.

Fraim said that while he respects the opinion of leaders on the Peninsula, common sense is on his side.

South Hampton Roads has 70 percent of the 1.6 million people in the region and 70 percent of its businesses, he said. Most of the region's port facilities are in Norfolk and Portsmouth and the region's most popular resort area is in Virginia Beach, the state's largest city.

Newport News already has Amtrak, which presumably would connect to high-speed rail in Richmond.

Peninsula officials have urged extending high-speed rail to the Peninsula, then across the James River over Hampton Roads harbor.

Fraim said the feeling among regional leaders is that "if we want this thing to happen, we have to go get it... We're going to make it obvious that we deserve it."

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

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