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Funding is among the obstacles to high-speed rail in Richmond

(The following story by Peter Bacque appeared on the Richmond Times-Dispatch website on July 18, 2010.)

RICHMOND, Va. — Richmond is crucial high-speed rail link, but how will it be paid for? Richmond-area officials are counting on fast, frequent, reliable passenger trains to connect the state capital with the nation's capital and with the great cities of the East Coast through the federal Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor.

"Long term, we'd rely on high-speed rail to link our businesses efficiently," said Greg Wingfield, president and CEO of the Greater Richmond Partnership Inc. "High-speed rail is very, very important for the economic development of the area."

But the state's rails are not ready for high-speed trains without a major public investment.

"It all depends on money," said Thelma D. Drake, director of the state's Department of Rail and Public Transportation. "That's the bottom line."

The rail infrastructure work will cost an estimated $1.8 billion just for the improvements from Richmond to Washington -- and $5.3 billion is needed to build the state's entire high-speed rail system. The bill for the Richmond-area improvements alone is $600 million.

Virginia has only $25 million-$30 million a year in dedicated state rail funds for capital improvements.

Bringing high-speed rail to Virginia will take decades to accomplish.

Where's the money?

"We're really dependent on federal assistance," Drake said. "There's no way we can do it without it. We just don't have the revenue sources."

The federal money spigot, however, hasn't been turned on yet.

In January, Virginia lost out in the nationwide competition for a share of $8 billion in federal economic stimulus funds for high-speed rail projects.

The federal government is putting about $2.5 billion into high-speed intercity passenger rail projects this year, and the state is planning on applying this summer for funding from that competitive program, run by the Federal Railroad Administration.

"Everybody wants their project now," FRA Deputy Administrator Karen Rae, a former Virginia Rail and Public Transportation director, said in an interview last week.

"I'll be very surprised if we don't see probably $20 billion to $40 billion in requests" for the $2.5 billion, Rae said, even with a required 20 percent match from the applying jurisdictions, which are already financially strapped.

Winners will be states and regions that have projects with strong public benefit that are ready to go, Rae said, and those that are able to manage their passenger rail projects and pay eventual operating expenses.

Virginia and local officials are trying to push forward plans for the Southeast High Speed Rail corridor, pointing out that the fast trains will have to go through Richmond before they can get anywhere else in the Southeast.

The state will be applying to do preliminary engineering and advanced environmental studies for the Richmond-Washington high-speed rail and a new trestle over the Appomattox River at Petersburg. CSX Corp. has pledged to provide the state's match for the Appomattox River railroad bridge preliminary engineering project.

The federal corridor's proposed designs and environmental impacts will be the subject of public hearings in Richmond and Petersburg this week.

"We've got a once-in-a-generation chance to create a new rail legacy for the country," Rae said, though "even if we were wildly aggressive, we'd be lucky to get all the system built out in 20, 25 years."

Chokepoints abound

Horns wailing, wheels squealing and locomotives rumbling, CSX freight trains pulled to a stop on the tracks on either side of Richmond's Main Street Station one day last week.

"You want to talk about chokepoints?" said Kevin B. Page, rail chief with the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation. "This is ground zero."

The congestion on the CSX railroad tracks in and around Richmond exemplifies the obstacles -- technical, financial, political, economic, environmental -- in the way of high-speed rail service.

For instance, Amtrak passenger trains take 25-30 minutes to travel the 9 miles between the Main Street and Staples Mill Road stations, a significant delay in a passenger's trip to Washington.

Increasing service at the historic Main Street Station by routing passenger trains from the south directly into the downtown terminal won't work, officials say, without expensive upgrades to what's called the S Line, used now as a slow-speed, industrial service track.

Rail vs. roads

Virginia has 5.3 million licensed drivers, 7.5 million registered vehicles and more than 57,000 miles of state-maintained highway.

On an average day, on the order of 430,000 vehicles pass through Interstate 95's Springfield interchange, the notorious Northern Virginia "Mixing Bowl" that was recently rebuilt for $676 million.

On the other hand, only 1 million travelers used Amtrak in the state last year, including 256,000 passengers at Staples Mill Station in Henrico County and nearly 24,000 at Main Street.

Passenger train usage in Virginia reflects America's fractured rail transportation organization.

Two private freight railroads -- CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern -- own the mainline rails in Virginia, and the CSX tracks running through the Richmond region are the heritage of the consolidation of four railroads here.

Federally owned Amtrak operates the national rail passenger system. Virginia's Department of Rail and Public Transportation does the state's rail planning and advocacy.

States and localities pony up to pay for some trains, and passengers pay for tickets, but the federal government foots most of the bill -- 70 percent of operations and 100 percent of capital costs -- for Amtrak.

And now the U.S. government has begun to pump large amounts of money into selected passenger rail projects, which have to comply with federal grant constraints and environmental regulations.

Despite the popularity of the automobile, Virginia's highway woes are driving the search for rail transportation.

The state's battered highways -- particularly Interstate 95, the Main Street of the East Coast, and Interstate 64 to Hampton Roads -- are overloaded with cars and trucks, making what should be a two-hour trip from Richmond to Washington or an hour and a half drive to Virginia Beach into open-ended gambles with travelers' time.

"Nobody goes to D.C. for the day anymore on the weekend," Wingfield noted.

Just 8 percent of the state's highways carry 66 percent of the vehicle travel in Virginia. Virginians' average commute time -- 26.8 minutes -- is in the eighth highest in the nation, and that lost time is not going to get better.

The state expects that by 2035, 75 percent of its interstate highways and 29 percent of its primary roads will rate a level-of-service grade of D or worse.

"How many lanes can you add on 95?" asked Wingfield. "At some point, you're saturated and you start looking at alternative ways to move people. That's transit, and in our case were talking about the high-speed rail version of that."

Fast and faster

Exactly what high-speed rail is depends on with whom you talk.

For many, it's the Japanese bullet train or the French TGV that come to mind, with speeds around 200 mph.

But for Virginia, the state rail agency is aiming for diesel-powered trains running at top speeds of 90 mph between Richmond and Washington, and 110 mph from Richmond to Raleigh, N.C.

And, according to the Federal Railroad Administration, bullet-train speeds come at a capital cost 14 times higher than trains running 90-110 mph.

"When you get beyond 110, you have to electrify and get rid of all the grade crossings," said Joseph H. Boardman, Amtrak's president and CEO. "That's a very expensive proposition."

Freight firms own the rails

The freight railroad company CSX operates more than 1,000 miles of railroad in Virginia, and Amtrak and Virginia Railway Express commuter trains run on CSX tracks in the state.

"Adding additional passenger trains to the network prior to the completion of infrastructure capacity can have adverse impacts to both passenger and freight operations," said Quintin C. Kendall, CSX's resident vice president for state government affairs in Virginia.

The key to developing successful rail corridors is ensuring that the passenger service is safe and reliable, Kendall said, and that freight rail remains efficient.

"CSX is committed to its partnership with Virginia," Kendall said. Page, the state rail chief, said, "CSX . . . has been very cooperative with us."

Step by step

The state is taking an incremental approach to adding passenger train service in Virginia, starting with conventional-speed service and continuing to move toward high-speed rail service.

Even assuming Virginia receives needed federal funding, Richmond-Washington higher-speed rail would not start rolling till 2030 or later, Page said.

"The federal planning process takes several years," Page said, "and we know that people in the Richmond and Hampton Roads regions want better rail service now."

The state rail agency elected to try to get a conventional-speed train running between Richmond and Norfolk in three years using what it describes as the most cost-effective approach, the existing Amtrak route around Richmond to Staples Mill.

Worried by the Norfolk train going around Richmond, local leaders have redoubled their efforts to make sure that the high-speed service eventually comes through Main Street Station downtown.

Snaking trains across the James, through bridge and viaduct piers, and into that Shockoe Bottom landmark is a formidable -- and pricey -- challenge.

"This is a very complicated piece of railroad," Page said of Richmond's downtown rail layout.

Virginia has set in motion the far-flung engineering work and federal planning to enable Main Street to handle passenger trains from the south, and to bring high-speed rail to the state.

The renovation and required improvements to the elegant Main Street Station proper eventually will total an estimated $89.6 million, said Viktoria Badger, a principal transportation planner with the city. Richmond envisions 32 trains a day stopping at the station.

"We're all looking at it from the point that Main Street Station is the hub," said Kim Scheeler, president and CEO of the Greater Richmond Chamber.

"If you look 30 years out, we'd like to see Main Street Station as the place trains are going," Scheeler said, "and light rail reaching out from there to all parts of the region."

But the price tag to make Main Street Station work is still $600 million.

"We can't be daunted by the obstacles," Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones told local business and government leaders at Main Street Station last week. "We have to keep working and fighting."

And, Scheeler said, "if we don't start, we're never going to get there."

Monday, July 19, 2010

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