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Virginia rail deal on track with completion of environmental planning for new Potomac River crossing

Virginia rail deal on track with completion of environmental planning for new Potomac River crossing

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Northbound train # 90, left, and southbound Amtrak train # 91, right, sit at the Staples Mill Amtrak station in Richmond, VA awaiting passengers Monday, March 19, 2018.

Environmental planning is complete for a new rail crossing of the Potomac River that is essential to Virginia’s plan to provide passenger rail service nearly every hour between Richmond and Washington in the next decade.

Virginia and District of Columbia transportation officials announced on Thursday the completion of a final environmental impact statement for construction of two railroad tracks and a pedestrian bridge across the Potomac next to Long Bridge, a 116-year-old river crossing owned by CSX Corp. that has become a choke point for passenger trains on the East Coast.

The completion of the environmental study by the Federal Rail Administration and the National Park Service allows Virginia to stay on track with a $3.7 billion rail plan unveiled by Gov. Ralph Northam last December that ultimately would allow almost hourly rail service between Richmond and Washington, as well as critical expansion of commuter rail operations in traffic-clogged Northern Virginia.

“A new bridge across the Potomac River represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make the rail system work better for everyone along the entire East Coast,” Northam said Thursday.

“The project has passed an important milestone, thanks to close collaboration between Virginia, D.C. and the private sector,” the governor said. “We are all excited about bringing easier and faster mobility to commuters and travelers.”

District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser said the rail project “is helping us build not just a more connected region, but a greener and more sustainable region.”

The linchpin of Virginia’s rail plan is construction of a second rail bridge across the Potomac to allow two tracks dedicated to passenger rail service instead of sharing the existing two tracks with freight trains. Currently, rail service between Richmond and Washington operates primarily during peak commuter hours in the morning and afternoon, but the rail project is expected to allow trains to leave and arrive almost hourly throughout the day.

Completion of the environmental study allows Virginia to begin preliminary engineering for the $1.9 billion project and construction next year on a fourth track that will allow separate passenger rail service from the Potomac to south of Alexandria. At the same time, Virginia is working on agreements with CSX to buy 350 miles of rail right-of-way and 225 miles of track in three rail corridors as part of a $525 million deal over the next three years.

“It’s a very, very significant milestone,” Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine said in an interview on Thursday.

The Greater Washington Partnership, a coalition of business leaders from Richmond to Washington and Baltimore, said the project “unlocks rail capacity for the entire Mid-Atlantic, places the District at the center of the Northeast and Southeast rail corridors in the U.S., and enables exponential growth in freight, intercity and commuter rail service throughout the commonwealth.”

The project depends on partnerships with Amtrak, which has pledged $944 million to the project, and regional rail authorities in Northern Virginia that expect expansion of Virginia Railway Express service to relieve traffic on Interstate 66 and other highways in the region.

The project will rely on $210 million from the VRE Commuter Rail Operating and Capital Fund, as well as allow use of tolls from Interstate 66 inside the Capital Beltway to repay bonds for the project.

“It’s a major part of fixing the transportation system in that region,” Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, said Thursday.

All of the partners are trying to overcome financial obstacles created by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has reduced rail ridership and revenues since the General Assembly adjourned in March after passing a massive omnibus transportation funding bill that creates a new passenger rail authority with authority to raise up to $1 billion in bonds to pay for the rail project. Saslaw and House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, sponsored the legislation for Northam.

“The really important statement is that all of the partners are still committed to the project,” Valentine said.

Virginia’s part of paying for the project won’t be easy, with the state facing an estimated shortfall of $870 million in transportation funds — $120 million in the fiscal year that ended June 30 and $750 million this year and next — because of declining collections of state taxes on gasoline, automobile titling and sales taxes because of the partial economic shutdown caused by the COVID-19 emergency.

Northam has proposed an amendment to the two-year budget that would allow state transportation officials flexibility to move money around among different accounts in the transportation trust fund to keep current transit and road projects moving forward and paying the money back within the state six-year transportation plan.

“If they don’t, [the expansion of] Long Bridge becomes more difficult,” said Jeffrey Southard, who retired last week after 15 years as executive vice president of the Virginia Transportation Construction Alliance, a crucial partner with the state in finding ways to improve Virginia’s transportation system.

Valentine and other transportation officials say the proposed amendment would give them flexibility in allocating funding that could relieve the Commonwealth Transportation Board from making painful cuts to the state’s transportation plans. The projected $870 million shortfall represents the entire $850 million currently planned for the third round of transportation projects under the state’s Smart Scale program.

Without flexible use of available funding, “something has to give,” Deputy Secretary of Transportation Nick Donohue said in an interview on Thursday.

With the proposed budget amendment, Valentine said, “We would be taking the money that is available now and putting it to work, and keeping all the projects moving over time.”

Northam also has proposed a second budget amendment to maintain funding of the Department of Rail and Public Transportation at the same level as the last fiscal year and support operation of the new Virginia Passenger Rail Authority until it hires an executive director and staff.

But all of the state’s ambitious transportation plans depending on construction of the new tracks across the Potomac at Long Bridge, including potential commuter rail service between Virginia and Maryland.

“Unlocking the gridlock across the Potomac will improve rail service, expand capacity for the Port of Virginia, connect workers to key employment centers, and contribute to our nation’s economic recovery and growth,” Valentine said in the announcement.

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