Virginia has sealed the deal on a $3.7 billion rail package with CSX Corp., Amtrak and Virginia Railway Express that will allow expanded passenger rail travel between Washington, D.C., and Richmond, including more trains to Main Street Station in the heart of downtown.
Gov. Ralph Northam signed agreements with the freight railway company, national passenger rail service and Northern Virginia commuter network on Tuesday in a ceremony at the Alexandria Amtrak station. Alexandria will be a key link between trains coming from all over Virginia and a new railroad bridge across the Potomac River to Union Station in Washington.
“We have an unprecedented opportunity to build a 21st-century rail system in Virginia and along the entire East Coast,” Northam said. “This historic initiative will help get people and goods where they need to go more efficiently, reduce congestion and pollution, and create a more inclusive economy.”
“Together with our partners at Amtrak, CSX and VRE, we are making critical investments that will fundamentally transform our transportation infrastructure, delivering long-term economic benefits for our workers and communities as we rebound from the pandemic and into the future,” he said.
Northam was joined by U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, whose presence heightened the important role that President Joe Biden’s administration is expected to play in boosting public investment in railways and other critical infrastructure as the country’s transportation system recovers from the drastic cutback in travel during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Buttigieg focused on the relief provided to Amtrak and public transit under the American Rescue Plan Act, the $1.9 trillion emergency aid package Biden signed on March 11.
“Help is here,” he said.
The package includes $1.7 billion for Amtrak to return more than 1,000 furloughed employees to work and restore passenger rail service, as well as $43 billion for public transit systems that have been hit hard by the pandemic while providing essential services to people who rely on them for their jobs.
“This is a matter of equity,” Buttigieg said. “It’s a matter of doing right by so many of the heroes of the pandemic.”
Alexandria Vice Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker, chair of VRE’s board of directors, called the American Rescue Plan a “lifeline for transportation here in the commonwealth and across the United States.”
But Virginia officials and members of the state’s congressional delegation have an eye toward the future, as Congress considers a potential multitrillion-dollar infrastructure package that Biden is preparing, as well as the reauthorization of federal transportation spending that is critical to state projects.
“First, the American Rescue Plan — next, Building Back Better,” said Rep. Don Beyer, D-8th, who played a major role in clearing the way for the construction of a new passenger rail bridge across the Potomac.
The agreements will commit Virginia to purchasing 350 miles of railroad right of way and 225 miles of track from CSX. The agreements will allow the state to boost passenger rail travel along the Interstate 95 corridor from Richmond to Washington and the Northeast, expand service from Doswell to Clifton Forge and revive an abandoned rail line from Petersburg into North Carolina that could become part of high-speed rail service to the Southeast.
“This is the first investment in making that a reality,” said Virginia Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine in an interview on Tuesday.
For Richmond, the construction of a separate bridge across the Potomac next to the 117-year-old Long Bridge will allow trains to run almost hourly between the Amtrak station on Staples Mill Road in Henrico County and Union Station in the next decade.
The expanded service also will allow more passenger trains to run from the Staples Mill station to Main Street Station in Shockoe Bottom, a long-standing goal to revitalize the oldest part of the city. Virginia transportation officials expect an existing train to begin serving the downtown station this year and two new trains to run there when the first phase of expansion is complete in 2026.
Ultimately, three more daily trains will run between Richmond and Washington by the end of the second phase in 2030, for a total of six new passenger trains between the two cities, including one that will begin running from Staples Mill to Norfolk this year.
The rail deal also will allow the expansion of passenger rail service by VRE in traffic-clogged Northern Virginia. Plans include six additional trains on the regional commuter network’s line between Union Station and Spotsylvania County, including one this year. VRE also will be able to add four passenger trains for daily service on its Manassas line, but that depends on agreements with Norfolk Southern Corp. for its portion of the rail right of way.
All of the plans depend on the construction of a bridge that allows the separation of passenger and freight rail traffic that currently share the two-track Long Bridge.
The Federal Rail Administration and the National Park Service completed a final environmental impact statement for the project in early September. Congress approved the transfer of 4 acres of park service land necessary to build the project as part of an omnibus spending and relief package that then-President Donald Trump signed on Dec. 27.
Virginia is committing $525 million over the next three years to pay for the right of way and track it is purchasing from CSX. The General Assembly approved amendments to the state budget last fall that gave state officials more flexibility to move money between projects to overcome a shortfall in transportation funding caused by the pandemic.
The amendments also allowed the state to maintain funding for its Department of Rail and Public Transportation, and to establish the new Virginia Passenger Rail Authority created under Northam’s omnibus transportation funding package. The assembly adopted it a year ago, just before the pandemic began to bring the state to a near standstill.
Amtrak will provide almost $1 billion and VRE almost $200 million over the next decade to support the package, while the state is considering the sale of up to $1 billion in bonds to pay for its share of the initiative’s costs.
“Virginia is a model for the nation in recognizing the role passenger rail plays in connecting people and economies,” said Amtrak CEO Bill Flynn.
Northam announced the rail initiative more than 15 months ago, but the pandemic slowed the process to finalize the agreements at its heart, “because of the uncertainty we were all feeling,” Valentine said.
Population growth and the return of highway congestion make passenger rail imperative, said Northam, who cited an earlier study that showed Virginia could build an additional lane on I-95 for 50 miles in both directions over 10 years at a cost of $12.5 billion.
“By the time it was done, the corridor would be just as congested as when we started,” he said.
Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn, who sponsored the governor’s transportation bill in the House during the 2020 session, said in a statement, “Today’s announcement by Governor Northam is another example of why investment in infrastructure is a key factor in Virginia’s short-term and long-term economic success.”
CSX President and CEO James Foote said the planned improvements will “benefit both passenger rail service and our freight rail customers,” as well as reduce vehicle air pollution that contributes to global warming and climate change.
“Things are changing,” Foote said. “The things we can do for the environment are important, they’re important for everybody. Getting more traffic off highways and onto rail.”
Beyer, whose district includes Alexandria, quipped, “Sometimes, the light at the end of a tunnel is a train.”