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Editorial: Va. high speed rail picture starts to clear

(The following editorial appeared on The Virginian-Pilot website on December 13, 2009.)

NORFOLK, Va. A state assessment of how best to serve Hampton Roads with high-speed rail appears to put advocates of a southern route at a disadvantage. But the arguments against developing a new passenger train connection through Suffolk and Chesapeake to Norfolk are predicated on double-counted dollars and on an imaginary bridge-tunnel.

Take away those chimerical obstacles, and the balance tilts decisively in South Hampton Roads' favor.

The goal of any rail project for Hampton Roads should be to ensure that everyone in the region has access to meaningful passenger service. Right now, Amtrak trains travel only to the Peninsula, leaving more than two-thirds of the region's population - or 1.1 million people - with no convenient rail option at all.

Regional leaders on the Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization have already endorsed one of five alternatives evaluated in the state report. That option would designate a southern high-speed rail corridor from Petersburg to Norfolk, providing South Hampton Roads with passenger service for the first time since 1971. Peninsula residents would benefit from the addition of a third daily round trip by conventional-speed train. The total price tag, according to state officials, is $475 million.

But a report by the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation claims it would cost less - $330 million - to upgrade the Peninsula's train service to high-speed.

A closer examination reveals the problem. The reason a high-speed rail line to South Hampton Roads is more expensive is because it includes $150 million for rail between Richmond and Petersburg. State officials admit they've already included that money in their separate request for federal funding to construct high-speed rail from Washington to Petersburg. Subtract that amount, and the South Hampton Roads rail line is actually cheaper than the Peninsula-only choice.

The state's evaluation also inflates ridership estimates for a Peninsula-only project. It assumes nearly 100,000 residents of South Hampton Roads would travel across the third crossing bridge-tunnel each year to board trains in Newport News. (In case you're wondering, it also assumes they'll be paying a toll of $5.38.) Anyone who has been paying attention knows the third crossing is unlikely to begin construction this side of the Second Coming. It would be equally realistic for the state study to assume that 100,000 people will reach the train station by horse-drawn sleigh.

A public hearing on the rail study is tentatively scheduled for January. It's important for residents of Hampton Roads to show up and express their enthusiasm for high-speed rail. They need to make it clear that flaws in the state study should not be used as an excuse to deny them access to more transportation choices.

Local residents also should encourage state and regional leaders to take a big-picture, pragmatic approach to rail. That includes addressing the following issues:

First, it would be a mistake to allow the debate over a high-speed rail corridor to overshadow an immediate opportunity offered by Norfolk Southern Corp. Company executives have said conventional-speed rail of 79 mph could be provided to South Hampton Roads for as little as $75 million. That's a bargain, and it needs to be pursued while Norfolk Southern is still a willing partner.

Second, state and regional leaders need to be working closely with their counterparts in North Carolina to make sure high-speed rail is extended along Interstate 95 to Charlotte. If that project is not successful, Hampton Roads' chances of attracting improved train service are greatly diminished.

Finally, it's crucial to remember that winning construction aid is just the first step. A stable source of revenue will be needed to pay for operating costs, and that money needs to be identified sooner rather than later.

Monday, December 14, 2009

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