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Rail backers press for service for Hampton Roads

(The following story by Debbie Messina appeared on The Virginian-Pilot website on August 7, 2009.)

NORFOLK, Va. — Virginians for High Speed Rail, the state's leading rail advocacy group, is urging federal and state officials to support expanding higher-speed passenger rail service to both sides of Hampton Roads.

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

So far, the state has estimated that the cost, depending on the route, would range from $330 million to $844 million.

A draft should be ready by late this summer, and public hearings will be scheduled.

The advocacy group's board, made up of community and business leaders from across the state, voted unanimously for both routes.

"High-speed rail is about more than just speed; it is about fast, frequent and reliable passenger rail service from Richmond to Newport News and Norfolk that will serve all of Hampton Roads," said Meredith Richards of Charlottesville, president of Virginians for High Speed Rail.

Passenger rail service along the Peninsula now averages less than a 50 percent on-time performance, group leaders said.

"As a business owner, that is unacceptable," said the group's former president, Thomas G. Tingle, a Williamsburg architect.

A split between South Hampton Roads and the Peninsula over high-speed rail is widening because the mayors of the seven southside cities and counties have agreed to push for a route south of the James River.

Southside leaders want higher-speed passenger service to extend from Richmond to Petersburg then along the U.S. 460 corridor and into downtown Norfolk.

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.

Meanwhile, the Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization passed a resolution last month endorsing a Hampton Roads high-speed rail connection without specifying a route.

Without a political consensus, the region's chances could be jeopardized at a time when federal money is available for such a project. More than $8 billion in federal stimulus money has been set aside for faster trains.

The state's first rail priority is upgrading service from Washington to Richmond and Petersburg.

Friday, August 7, 2009

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