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Norfolk mayor says inflated cost may hurt region's rail hopes

(The following story by Debbie Messina appeared on The Virginian-Pilot website on July 16, 2009.)

CHESAPEAKE, Va. — South Hampton Roads' chances of getting high-speed rail could be hurt because the state has overpriced how much money it would take to connect to the growing passenger train network, Norfolk Mayor Paul Fraim said Wednesday.

Fraim's comments came on the heels of the state rail department releasing for the first time a cost estimate of $412 million for running trains from Richmond to Norfolk along the U.S. 460 corridor.

Chip Badger, Department of Rail and Public Transportation director, told the Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization in a meeting Wednesday that the figure includes $150 million for the segment between Richmond and Petersburg.

The cost of that segment is also included in the state's highest priority rail project - $1.57 billion for high-speed rail from Washington to Petersburg.

Fraim said counting that segment twice "is simply unfair to South Hampton Roads. The state knows they have to bear the cost from Richmond to Petersburg anyway."

Decision makers often base judgments on costs, Fraim said, and the cost will be inflated for the Norfolk link.

Both the Southside and Peninsula are vying for federal money to be connected to the national high-speed network under President Barack Obama's $8 billion rail-stimulus package.

Jennifer Pickett, the state rail department's Chief of Policy and Communication, declined Wednesday to provide cost estimates for the Peninsula route.

Last week, Virginia submitted paperwork to federal authorities for federal stimulus money for the Washington to Petersburg link. A corridor from Washington to the Virginia state line along Interstates 95 and 85 has been designated as part of the Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor.

The state also submitted a Hampton Roads connection for a second round of federal funding. In addition to the original $8 billion, Obama has proposed another $5 billion over five years for high-speed rail.

However, it has not been determined which route a Hampton Roads line would take: either along U.S. 460 to Norfolk, on the current Amtrak line parallel to Interstate 64 on the Peninsula, or both. Speeds of up to 110 mph are proposed, up from a maximum of 79 mph on the Peninsula Amtrak service.

A state study examining the costs and ridership of bringing the higher-speed trains to Hampton Roads is expected to be released later this summer. So far, the state has estimated the cost, depending on the route, would range from $330 million to $844 million.

Meanwhile, the transportation planning organization passed a resolution Wednesday endorsing a Hampton Roads high-speed rail connection without specifying a route. The resolution states it's "an important regional priority."

Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms, who chairs the transportation agency, said high-speed rail is critical to the region's viability. He requested that a special meeting be held to focus on the issue.

"We're not going to be left out," Fraim said.

Friday, July 17, 2009

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