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Editorial: An important vote for higher-speed rail

(The following editorial appeared on The Virginian-Pilot website on June 17, 2009.)

NORFOLK, Va. Wick Moorman said he was speaking only for himself when he told Norfolk business leaders that higher-speed passenger rail must come to Hampton Roads by a southern route.

But his opinion could be another catalyst for a project that promises an economic boost and much-needed relief from traffic congestion. Moorman, after all, is CEO of Norfolk Southern Corp., which owns the south side rail lines and would be a crucial partner if the project becomes reality.

Last week, he told members of the Greater Norfolk Corp. that an alternate path down the Peninsula "just doesn't work" because few if any of the million residents of South Hampton Roads will drive to Newport News to catch a train. "It's got to be out of Southside Virginia," he said.

Moorman didn't just offer his opinion on the matter. He signaled in an interview that his company is open to becoming an active partner. "If we think that it makes sense for us financially to take some role in the ongoing operation, we'd be willing to at least consider that," he said. "We certainly are more than willing to be engaged in the dialogue."

Moorman's comments represent a sea change in Norfolk Southern's attitudes. The company historically has had understandable heartburn about trying to coordinate fast-moving passenger trains and slower freight cars. But Moorman and other executives are proud residents of Hampton Roads, and they understand the economic consequences if a network of high- and higher-speed passenger rail along the East Coast bypasses the region.

They also understand their own business model is changing. Moorman told business leaders that cargo traffic has dropped by about 45 percent for automobiles, 40 percent for steel and 25 percent for coal compared to last year's figures. Although Moorman sees signs of improvement, he believes recovery will be slow. While the recession has been painful, it's also encouraged Moorman and his colleagues to consider new opportunities, including passenger rail.

Moorman said 16 states have contacted his company eager to engage Norfolk Southern in passenger rail projects. He's met with officials in Virginia, and his expertise is already helping to level barriers impeding the project.

For example, he said in an interview that the state's $475 million price tag for a southern route exceeds his company's own estimates for necessary upgrades. Norfolk Southern boasts a rail network perfectly capable of handling passenger trains with additional side tracks for passing and improved road crossings.

The primary reason the South Hampton Roads spur appears to be more expensive than the Peninsula route, estimated at $330 million, is that state officials have included the cost for a section of rail that has to be built anyway.

Plans are under way to extend high-speed rail from Washington, D.C., to Richmond, continuing on to Petersburg, Raleigh, N.C., and Charlotte, N.C. That project will go forward no matter where or whether an eastbound spur is added to Hampton Roads. Indeed, the upgrades for Richmond-to-Petersburg are included in a separate assessment for improvements between Richmond and Raleigh.

Those costs - the ones that make a south side route more expensive - are being double-counted by Richmond, to the detriment of Norfolk, Portsmouth, Virginia Beach, Chesapeake and Suffolk.

While Moorman is willing to work with Virginia on passenger rail, issues of capacity, liability and financing must be resolved. "The trick is the money," he said.

President Barack Obama has earmarked billions of dollars to construct rail projects in the stimulus package and in his budget, but the state must be willing to invest in the long-term operation of passenger service.

Norfolk Southern is the partner Virginia needs to bring passenger rail to the state's second-largest population center. The question now is whether Virginia can convince Moorman that the state will be a trustworthy partner in the endeavor.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

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