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Richmond-Hampton Roads rail plan gains speed

(The following story by Debbie Messina appeared on The Virginian-Pilot website on March 21, 2010.)

NORFOLK, Va. — Momentum is building for running conventional passenger trains between Norfolk and Richmond as an interim step to getting high-speed rail.

The budget approved by the General Assembly last week waives a 30 percent match on state Rail Enhancement Funds, clearing a financial hurdle that will allow construction to begin later this year and for trains to run within three years.

"We can advance the project with state funds; otherwise, it would not have been able to go forward," said Jennifer Pickett, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation.

Pickett said there's ample money in the Rail Enhancement Fund - which comes from taxes on rental cars - to cover the capital costs of upgrading the existing freight tracks to accommodate passenger trains with a top speed of 79 mph.

The route roughly follows Interstate 95 between Richmond and Petersburg, then U.S. 460 between Petersburg and South Hampton Roads, with a terminus at Harbor Park in downtown Norfolk.

"I would describe this as a watershed event," said Barry Bishop, executive vice president of Greater Norfolk Corp., which has been lobbying for higher-speed trains to Hampton Roads.

"It gets us in the game," he said. "This is a beginning, not an end. It's far more likely we'll get federal funding with some rail service in place. High-speed service will come incrementally."

The budget is still subject to approval by Gov. Bob McDonnell, but Pickett said state rail officials are confident of his support.

Months ago, it wasn't clear the Hampton Roads region could even work together to push for rail service. President Barack Obama's emphasis on high-speed rail motivated leaders to work together to try to take advantage of new funding opportunities.

Brad Face, co-chairman of Virginians for High Speed Rail, said, "The region and the state very quickly made critical decisions which have historically been politically difficult.

"In the last few months, we've seen this unanimous expression of support for what really needs to be done because there is a realization there is little else we can do to present transportation options for Hampton Roads."

The state highway department recently forecast that interstate funding for Hampton Roads over the next 30 years will be cut in half.

"My observation is that on both the state and federal levels, rail is where they're putting money for transportation," Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms said. "If we don't take advantage of it, shame on us."

Pickett said it was clear after two hearings in Hampton Roads on high-speed rail in recent months that there's "such overwhelming support for rail transportation in the region." Close to 1,000 people showed at a high-speed rail hearing in Norfolk.

That's when the state's new rail and public transportation director Thelma Drake, a former U.S. House member from Hampton Roads, sought ways to tap into the Rail Enhancement Fund for the service.

Still, many things need to fall in place before passenger trains to South Hampton Roads become a reality.

Agreements need to be reached with Norfolk Southern and CSX, which own the rails that the passenger trains would share with freight traffic.

Both railroads are interested in partnering with the state to make it happen.

"We recognize that passenger service is something of value to the public," Norfolk Southern spokesman Robin Chapman said. "We are willing to share our tracks given certain conditions are met."

Norfolk Southern needs to be able to preserve and grow its freight capacity on the line, to protect itself from liability, and to be compensated for the use of its tracks, Chapman said.

Norfolk Southern estimates it will cost $75 million to upgrade its tracks along U.S. 460. The state is working with CSX on an estimate to upgrade its tracks around Petersburg and into Richmond. Details also have to be worked out with Amtrak to operate the service.

Funding also must be identified to subsidize operations. The legislature also agreed to task the state rail department to study how to create a sustainable rail operations fund for not only the Hampton Roads service, but other passenger rail in Virginia.

Money would still need to be found for likely stations at Harbor Park in Norfolk - where the track would tie into the light-rail line now under construction - at Bowers Hill in Chesapeake and in
Petersburg.

It would be the first passenger rail service from Norfolk since 1977. Amtrak runs two passenger trains daily from Newport News.

Meanwhile, the state is still pursuing high-speed rail service both between Washington and Richmond and between Richmond and Hampton Roads, which is more expensive and depends on federal funding.

Monday, March 22, 2010

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