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Va. wants fund for high speed rail

(The following story by Jennifer Buske appeared on the Washington Post website on August 2, 2009.)

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Virginia officials will ask the federal government for more than $1.6 billion in stimulus money to implement high-speed rail between Petersburg and the District.

The state wants to claim part of the $8 billion available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act's rail stimulus program. The funding will be used to make infrastructure improvements needed for trains to travel up to 90 mph along the Interstate 95 corridor -- a speed that could cut the travel time almost in half, said Jennifer Pickett, spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation. The current maximum speed is 79 mph, she said, but trains rarely reach that along the stretch, which is traveled by more than 716,000 people annually.

The state will apply for the funding in stages, with the first application for $72 million due Aug. 24, said Barbara Reese, deputy director of policy for Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D). If approved, the money will go toward "shovel-ready" improvements on a stretch between Fredericksburg and Prince William County. The next application -- for $1.57 billion to finish I-95 corridor improvements -- will go out in the fall. Projects will include updating signals and grade separations and adding new track, a move that will benefit freight shipments, too, Reese said.

"High-speed rail has been a priority of ours," said Sharon Bulova (D), chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors and vice chairman of the Virginia Rail Advisory Board. "I think the more we can shift motorists from their single-passenger automobiles to passenger rail, the better."

Pickett said the state is in a good position to get stimulus money because it already has a dedicated source of rail capital funding, has invested more than $197 million in the Richmond-to-Washington rail system and has received the go-ahead from Amtrak to pursue high-speed rail. Virginia is also an important link to the Northeast, one of the nation's busiest transportation corridors, he said.

Virginia Railway Express officials said high-speed rail would also benefit Virginia commuters traveling along the Fredericksburg line to Union Station. Once high-speed is in place, the commuter rail service could add an express train with limited stops and shave time off the current commuter schedule, which has trains operating between 60 and 70 mph, VRE spokesman Mark Roeber said.

"It would draw a whole new clientele," Roeber said. "Now, for the most part, trains beat cars heading into D.C., but not always. If we were running an express, no car could beat that train, and the demand for that service would be very high."

VRE's average daily ridership reached 15,700 in July. If an express train is added, Roeber said, it could attract an additional 1,000 riders daily.

Pickett said high-speed trains, operated by Amtrak, could be implemented as early as 2011 along the Fredericksburg to Prince William stretch and by 2017 along the rest of the I-95 corridor.

The plan to add high-speed trains is the second major rail transportation effort in Virginia this year. This fall, the state will begin running intercity trains from Lynchburg and Richmond to Washington. This expansion in passenger rail service is expected to remove 1.4 million cars from the highways and save more than 8.3 million gallons of fuel each year, officials said.

Monday, August 3, 2009

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