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Editorial: Vote boosts cause of Va. high-speed rail

(The following editorial appeared on The Virginian-Pilot website on November 9, 2009.)

NORFOLK, Va. — On its face, the resolution adopted by the Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization doesn’t sound so momentous. It doesn’t even sound particularly decisive. But the unanimous vote late last month puts the region squarely behind high-speed rail in South Hampton Roads, and that’s a noteworthy accomplishment.

The federal government has $8 billion to spend on passenger rail projects, and it’s already attracted requests from across the country totaling more than 12 times that sum. For Hampton Roads to be included, it had to decide whether high-speed service would enter the region from the Southside or down the Peninsula.

Such stark choices are historically difficult for Hampton Roads leaders, who usually settle for accommodation over progress. But the high-speed rail project presented them with a dilemma that could not be solved by selecting “all of the above.”

If the region had refused to make a decision, state and federal rail officials could have rightly concluded that Hampton Roads was not serious about high-speed rail. If the region erupted in hostility, that would have created a convenient excuse to carve it out of the project entirely.

Those possibilities roused regional leaders to action. Norfolk Mayor Paul Fraim has been instrumental in bulldogging state officials into considering a Southside route. Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms’ swift, assertive leadership on the TPO helped steer the resolution to passage. But the real credit goes to Peninsula leaders, including Hampton Mayor Molly Ward, who showed up for the TPO meeting and supported the resolution. They’re taking heat for their votes, but they did the right thing.

The resolution should not be viewed as a loss for the Peninsula, but a gain for the region. Indeed, the TPO went on record in support of improvements to the horrendous conventional-speed passenger rail service that now exists on the Peninsula.

But the high-speed rail project belongs in South Hampton Roads.

The proposed route follows a freight corridor that parallels U.S. 460 and runs through Suffolk to Norfolk, ending at Harbor Park, where it would connect with light rail. The so-called Hampton Roads “spur” would link to train service that runs along Interstate 95.

Logic has always weighed heavily in favor of the southern route. Two-thirds of the region’s population lives south of the James River.

Additional demand would come from tourists headed to regional attractions and military officials shuttling between local bases and the Pentagon. The curvy, meandering rail on the Peninsula is not conducive to high speeds, while the Norfolk Southern tracks include one of the longest stretches of straight rail in the nation.

The TPO vote does not guarantee that high-speed rail service will ever arrive in South Hampton Roads.

But regional leaders have done their part . Now it’s time for residents to do theirs. Once a state study of service options is released, public hearings will be scheduled to gauge interest in the project. An enthusiastic response would put a much-needed exclamation point on the TPO’s courageous decision.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

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