Expert Calls for Long-Term Planning to Extend Virginia’s ‘Rail Renaissance’

July 01, 2013

Railroad transportation in Virginia and many other parts of the country is witnessing a renaissance in popularity and public support as a safe, clean and efficient way to move both freight and passengers. Virginia is at the forefront of this movement.

But Virginia’s rail transportation policies must be refined and clarified for a better future, according to an article in the current Virginia News Letter, published by the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service.

The Virginia News Letter, edited by Cooper Center senior economist John Knapp and published about six times a year, offers experts’ insights into issues of public concern in Virginia.

The current article, written by Richard L. Beadles, a rail transportation veteran and one of the founders of the nonprofit Virginia Rail Policy Institute, documents how the state’s relationship with private railroads has come full circle.

In the beginning, there was strong support, then none for over a century – only regulation by public authorities – and now Virginia is once again aggressively funding and promoting rail transportation.

Some of the key points made by Beadles, a former president and CEO of the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad:

  • “Since about 1975, Virginia has gradually become a major funder and developer of rail infrastructure and services,” Beadles writes. “It has done so incrementally, usually on a case-by-case basis. State transportation officials, over many years until recently, simply responded to rail needs identified and promoted by others. Virginia more or less backed into funding railroads. The state still lacks a comprehensive statement of the ultimate role for rail in the decades ahead.”
  • Virginia’s recently enacted comprehensive transportation funding bill was a milestone for intercity passenger rail transportation in the state, providing a steady source of revenue for the Intercity Passenger Rail Operating and Capital fund. The combination of that fund and the previously enacted Rail Enhancement Fund place Virginia in a favorable place to continue funding improvements to conventional freight and passenger infrastructure and services.
  • Nevertheless, Virginia will eventually need high-speed passenger rail to serve some of its urban corridors, as well as high-performance freight rail to relieve interstate truck traffic on major highways. Other than studies, there are no short-term prospects for either. Conventional freight rail intermodal service appears to have made only minimal impact, in terms of domestic transport. International (port-related) is another matter.
  • Virginia has a material interest in the future of the Northeast Rail Corridor and should be better represented in matters relating to it. Maryland pays nothing, directly, for its intercity Northeast Rail Corridor service, which is 100 percent funded by Amtrak, while Virginia is soon to be obligated to assume full cost of any operating deficits of the state’s Amtrak regional trains. “Virginia governors, their administrations and the state’s congressional delegations should address this.”
  • The rail renaissance has been running ahead of consistent public transportation policy. If a strong state-sponsored program of rail development is to continue without potential challenges, it will be necessary to amend the state constitution’s section that prohibits spending for transportation improvements other than roads.
  • A “State of Rail in the Commonwealth” annual report would benefit policymakers and citizens alike. There is much to celebrate, yet there are big decisions yet to be made, especially in funding beyond conventional rail freight and passengers services. “Department of Rail and Public Transportation rail plans have improved over the years, but they still lack substantive discussion of the optimal role of rail. Rail infrastructure and services, of the type likely required over the next several decades, has such a long lead-time associated with them, that traditional VDOT six-year plans do not adequately permit consideration. One-term governors, as required in Virginia, do not have the political motivation to tackle many long-term projects,” Beadles writes.

Beadles concludes: “Virginia has witnessed a remarkable cycle of public policy evolution on railroad transportation ranging from early embrace, later a constitutional prohibition, and finally, reconciliation.

“The next 50 years promise to be equally challenging, but prudent steps taken now can smooth the way. Some of them wouldn’t even cost a lot of money. Virginians appear to strongly favor rail development. Rail is not a partisan political issue in Virginia. With good planning, and continuing legislative support, we can be optimistic about the future of rail in Virginia.”

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Rebecca P. Arrington

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