By Sean Tubbs

Charlottesville Tomorrow

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation has ambitious plans to expand rail service across the commonwealth, but first the agency must find a way to secure money for day-to-day operations.

“The bottom line is that there is no dedicated funding, and the availability of operating funds is going to be a growing and serious challenge,” said Trip Pollard, a senior attorney for the

Southern Environmental Law Center

.

Pollard was one of several speakers at a legislative forum held Friday in Charlottesville to build support for continued public funds to support passenger trains. The event was sponsored by the

Piedmont Rail Coalition

.


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Virginia is in the midst of a three-year experiment funding service on two new passenger train routes, including a daily service from Lynchburg to New York that stops in Charlottesville.






Source: Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation


In the first year of service, 126,072 riders boarded the train from stations in Virginia, two and a half more times than had been expected. The train took in $6.3 million in its first year, surpassing the original first year goal of $2.58 million. However, the $1.3 million profit goes to help pay for the second state-supported train traveling from Richmond to D.C.

“The Richmond to D.C. train is one of 10 … daily and is not showing the kinds of revenue success the Lynchburg train is,” said Meredith Richards, the coalition’s chairwoman.

“One of the problems is that after this three-year period, we have no means of funding passenger rail. If we’re going to continue the trains, we need to set up a means to do that,” Richards said.

When the service was started, VDRPT agreed to subsidize operating costs for the first three years. Richards said officials had to pour through the agency’s budget to “cobble together” the subsidy.

Gov. Bob McDonnell’s transportation bill contains a provision to create a dedicated fund for intercity passenger rail. The House of Delegates held its final reading of the bill Friday, and the Senate will take it up on Monday.






Trip Pollard of the SELC takes questions from forum attendees


“There have been no attempts to amend or strip out the rail fund,” Pollard said to applause from the event’s attendees.

However, while the bill would establish the fund, Pollard said the current bill does not specify any sources of revenue. That discussion will be deferred until next year’s General Assembly session.

“[The fund will be] like an empty bank account but at least it is a foot in the door,” Richards said.

Several other speakers at the forum explained why they thought support for trains is growing.

“Rail service is a component not only of quality of life but economic development,” said Bob DeMauri, a former president of the Thomas Jefferson Partnership for Economic Development.

DeMauri said the emerging presence of the defense industry in northern Albemarle County will continue to provide willing passengers. He called for a new station to be built in the Proffit Road area to serve

Rivanna Station

and the

University of Virginia’s Research Park

.

Daniel Plaugher is with the group Virginians for High Speed Rail. He claimed rail is becoming a more attractive option because of rising gas prices and increased traffic congestion.

“Other modes are failing because of the lack of infrastructure,” Plaugher said.

According to Plaugher, Charlottesville-area businesses that send their employees to Washington for business save $55 per round trip if they put them on the train. He claimed that passenger rail reduced the number of vehicle trips in Virginia by 6.1 million last year.


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