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Virginia facing payment to Amtrak for rail service

(The following story by Peter Bacque appeared on the Richmond Times-Dispatch website on June 4, 2010.)

RICHMOND, Va. — Virginia faces having to come up with millions of dollars to pay for some of Amtrak's passenger rail service in the state.

By 2013, federal law requires that states pay their share of Amtrak's costs to provide intercity passenger service on regional routes.

"It pushes back on the state a burden that has yet to be clearly identified," said Kevin B. Page, the state's chief of rail transportation.

The federal requirement also could hinder Virginia plans to add high-speed rail service to its transportation mix, officials said.

In Virginia, Amtrak runs four daily Northeast Regional trains -- two from the Richmond area and two from Newport News -- that Amtrak pays for.

The state plans to subsidize two more Amtrak trains to the Northeast region as a demonstration project: one from Lynchburg now in service, another train from the Richmond area starting in July and extended to Norfolk in 2013.

The Carolinian, a train subsidized by North Carolina that runs through Virginia, also could be affected by the changes in federal policy.

"No decisions . . . have been made yet," said Amtrak spokeswoman Tracy Connell. "We are working with our state partners to determine a policy [for allocating service costs] and should know more by the end of the summer."

Virginia's share of running the regional trains will be subject to negotiation with Amtrak.

"My goal is to increase passenger rail service at the most reasonable cost to the taxpayers of Virginia," Page said. "They're going to be challenging discussions."

The state does not now have a way to pay for the trains' operating costs.

For 2011-16, the unfunded operating costs for the two state-subsidized trains alone is $41 million, according to the state's Department of Rail and Public Transportation.

"Virginia has no currently available pot to ladle out funds for that," said Richard L. Beadles, a member of the state's Rail Advisory Board and director of the nonprofit Virginia Rail Policy Institute.

The Virginia legislature has directed the Department of Rail and Public Transportation to study ways of funding high-speed and intercity passenger rail.

The federal policy change also could throw a wrench into Virginia's long-term hopes for high-speed passenger train service.

"This is a big issue," said Daniel L. Plaugher, executive director of Virginians for High-Speed Rail.

Said Page, "If limited state resources are being spent on funding existing Amtrak services, then it would be very challenging to add additional higher-speed trains."

The federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act aims at treating all states equally in its charges for similar Amtrak services.

Fifteen states financially support Amtrak trains within their borders.

But as matters now stand, "the agreements Amtrak has with different states differ considerably," said Ross B. Capon, president and CEO of the National Association of Rail Passengers in Washington.

Some states may be hit with sharp increases in payments for intercity passenger service, Capon said.

"Amtrak will want to lower how much Virginia gets off the ticket revenue," Plaugher said.

"The federal government has told us, 'Congratulations, you now have to provide the subsidy for these rail lines,'" said Cord A. Sterling, a member of the Commonwealth Transportation Board.

Amtrak operates more than 20 trains daily in Virginia. Slightly more than 1 million passengers arrived or departed on Amtrak trains in Virginia last year.

Last year, the national rail service needed a $1.5 billion federal subsidy to cover its costs.

Friday, June 4, 2010

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