By Kurt Walters
Monday, January 9, 2012
After reaching the final year of its three-year trial period, the train line that connects Lynchburg through Charlottesville and Washington to the Northeast has gotten a new two-year lease on life.
Gov. Bob McDonnell’s recent state budget proposal includes a provision allowing the Commonwealth Transportation Board to use money intended for railway improvements to cover the operating costs of Virginia’s state-supported regional trains.
“I was worried [the McDonnell administration] would try to eliminate the train,” said Del. David J. Toscano, a Democrat who represents Charlottesville and parts of Albemarle County. “Ultimately I think they concluded that you do pilot programs for a reason, and if the pilot program is successful, you try to find a way to fund it.”
The route through Charlottesville has been recognized as an extraordinarily successful experiment, with ridership far exceeding Amtrak’s expectations and the train even turning a profit — rare for passenger rail.
“Ours is one of the few state-sponsored regional trains that is on the positive side of [breaking even],” said Meredith Richards, chairwoman of the Piedmont Rail Coalition. “It appears that for the Lynchburg train right now that not a lot [of state funding] will be needed.”
The other train affected, running from Richmond to Washington, requires much more funding support. Richards forecasted that this train is unlikely to break even until the route is extended to Norfolk.
The governor’s budget doesn’t actually allocate any additional money to the state’s rail system. Instead, it merely allows the CTB to delay small capital improvement projects in favor of keeping the trains running.
“It is a kick the can down the road solution, but it’s just fine for the next two years,” said Richards. “It gives us two years’ space to keep building up ridership.”
In those two years, though, the state’s rail funding will come under increasing strain. The federal government has moved to devolve the funding responsibility for regional trains onto the states. By the summer of 2013, Virginia will be responsible for four more regional train routes, which connect Newport News to the Northeast.
The state’s Rail Enhancement Fund is currently financed from a fee on rental vehicles, but Richards said that diverting money from this fund to cover operating costs is not sustainable.
“When you think about the scope of things … there’s no way the Rail Enhancement Fund will ultimately cover both the costs of capital improvement projects and operating our regional trains,” Richards said.
At rail advocates’ request, the General Assembly in 2010 created an Intercity Passenger Rail Operating and Capital Fund, but they did not provide it with a source of revenue.
Toscano and Richards said both legislators and advocates had worked hard to convince McDonnell to keep the trains’ operating costs in his proposed budget. Toscano mentioned a letter from legislators throughout the Lynchburg-to-DC rail corridor that he signed onto and Richards highlighted resolutions her group gathered from supportive localities and organizations, including one passed by the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors.
Toscano gave the biggest amount of credit to the trains’ ridership, citing high rates of usage as the reason the Lynchburg train is cost-effective. However, he cautioned against claiming victory until the General Assembly actually passes the budget.
“The governor proposes and the legislature disposes, so you never know till you get to the end of the project,” Toscano said.