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Opinion/Editorial: Passenger rail future gets boost

Opinion/Editorial: Passenger rail future gets boost

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Local residents who support one of the busiest passenger rail stations in the state — Charlottesville’s — should be interested in the reform of rail management to occur under the new Virginia Passenger Rail Authority.

The General Assembly created the entity in March, and it held its first meeting in October.

The VPRA’s backers hope it will provide greater longevity and continuity to rail policy, which currently depends heavily on who occupies the Executive Mansion and who holds a majority in the General Assembly.

The governor submits budgets, and the legislature approves or amends them, but the politics involved in that process can derail projects when what is needed is a steadier hand at the wheel, advocates say.

The governorship is guaranteed to change hands every four years, since the state constitution prevents Virginia’s top executive from succeeding himself. The House of Delegates is up for re-election every two years and the state Senate every four, introducing the likelihood of additional change.

But transportation policy benefits from consistency and can be slowed down by frequent political change, argue rail advocates. That’s because transportation projects can require many years of planning, funding and construction. Being subject to a shifting political environment interferes with such long-term efforts.

“Every four years our state’s leadership changes, the personnel changes, and there’s not that consistent, overarching vision that’s necessary to achieve big gains in passenger rail,” Danny Plaugher, executive director of Virginians for High Speed Rail, told the Virginia Mercury.

The advocacy group has been lobbying for a rail authority since it was formed 26 years ago. Success has been a long time coming.

“This authority is so important because it takes the politics out of our rail policy a bit,” he said.

It doesn’t remove politics completely, of course. The governor still submits citizens’ names for appointment to the authority’s governing board, and the legislature must approve those appointments.

The authorizing legislation requires that a substantial percentage of appointees live within the heavily populated Northern Virginia, Richmond and Hampton Roads areas, where passenger rail is seen as an important partial solution to highway crowding and automobile pollution.

But projects serving other regions also would be under the authority’s purview, including the proposed Commonwealth Corridor from Hampton Roads to Roanoke and beyond. Since passenger rail now connects Charlottesville to Roanoke, completion of this project potentially could provide service for local residents all the way to Bristol.

More immediate projects include track acquisition from the CSX freight company and construction of a new bridge over the Potomac River into Washington, where the outdated and inadequate Long Bridge continually creates bottlenecks in north-south traffic. Eliminating this traffic jam could open the way for improved or expanded service between Washington and Charlottesville. It certainly is necessary for the dreamed-of plan of running passenger trains hourly between Washington and Richmond.

In addition to being a step removed from political influence, the VPRA also has greater power to leverage long-term projects. The authority will be part of the Department of Rail and Public Transportation — but the department itself is prevented from making commitments beyond a six-year time frame; rail projects can take up to 10 years to come to fruition. The authority also will be able to own infrastructure and will have more flexibility negotiating with partners such as Amtrak.

The commonwealth already has experience with a similar entity in the Virginia Port Authority. The VPRA is seen as following that precedent.

Virginia slowly has been gaining increased public support for passenger rail, and Charlottesville’s rail success has been part of that story. Now critical mass has been reached to give Virginia its own rail authority — a move that could further boost passenger service for our community.

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