By Rachana Dixit, Daily Progress
Published: July 22, 2008
A draft of Virginia’s Statewide Rail Plan recommends implementing a new passenger line with stops in Charlottesville as the first phase of the statewide TransDominion Express, with initial operations that would begin as early as 2010.
The plan was released last week by the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, which examines all state transportation corridors to determine where improvements are needed. Public comment on the draft will be received until Aug. 25.
The passenger line — listed in the plan as a potential rail investment location — would add up to two roundtrip trains per day from Lynchburg to Washington, D.C., with stops in Charlottesville, Culpeper, Manassas and Alexandria. The TransDominion Express, a four-phase venture for which the General Assembly has already earmarked $9.3 million, is a $206 million project that includes expanded service to Richmond, Roanoke and Bristol.
“What’s in the plan is completely consistent with what we had hoped for,” said Meredith Richards, chairwoman of the Piedmont Rail Coalition and a former city councilor. Richards and the coalition have been longtime advocates for increasing train stops in Charlottesville, and 21 area governmental bodies and other organizations recently signed a resolution declaring support for the Lynchburg to Washington line.
“I think the public pressure is going to result in major public investments in rail,” Richards said. Currently, 20 passenger trains run through Charlottesville per week, compared to Lynchburg’s 14 and Richmond’s 126.
Growing ridership demand is one of the reasons the plan cites for adding the new service. According to a 2007 Virginia Amtrak ridership report, last year there were about 48,000 boardings — riders getting on and off a train — from Charlottesville’s West Main Street station.
With no service improvements, the annual Amtrak ridership between the Washington area and Lynchburg is estimated to be between 71,800 and 90,900 by 2030, according to the Statewide Rail Plan report.
If two daily roundtrip trains were added, annual ridership would increase to between 152,800 and 193,300 by 2030.
But for the new TransDominion project to come to fruition, the plan notes that a public-private partnership between the state, Norfolk Southern, Amtrak and federal partners is required. Three of Norfolk Southern’s corridors, including the Crescent that runs through Charlottesville, would be included in the project.
Obtaining funding is an obstacle for the project, since the Lynchburg to Washington line alone would cost the state an additional $1.9 million per year.
In a letter written to Richards, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine said his administration “is committed to improving both passenger and freight rail service in the commonwealth,” but no funding sources exist to fund the project.
Richards said a clear funding source has not been defined and the schedule for when the service would start also remains uncertain. Kaine proposed transportation funding legislation during the General Assembly’s recent special session, but it was not passed.
“We don’t really know what they have in mind,” Richards said, referring to the General Assembly.
Zachary Shahan, executive director of the Charlottesville-based Alliance for Community Choice in Transportation, said getting communities to discuss rail options can be difficult.
“It’s hard to get a lot of people behind the initial investment of rail,” Shahan said. But he added that discussion is increasing for multiple reasons, including rising fuel costs and reducing the country’s carbon footprint.
“I think people are starting to come back to it a bit, but there are varied views on this,” Shahan said. “With the trajectory of things it’s only going to become more and more likely.”
To consistently fund and expand rail service, Richards said it would require a whole new paradigm from the state — recognizing the importance of passenger rail and how it contributes to long-term transportation goals.
“That is a big hurdle politically for us to climb,” she said.
Officials at the state rail and public transportation department did not return calls before deadline.