Organization continues effort for high-speed rail

Members of the Virginia-North Carolina Interstate High Speed Rail Compact met earlier this month in Richmond to discuss federal and state program initiatives, affordability and future plans to initiate a high-speed rail system throughout the two states.

The organization’s goal during the June 7 meeting at the General Assembly was to discuss how to provide transportation options for the public and seek ways to increase potential ridership by making train service as convenient as possible.

The Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor (SEHSR) was established in 1992 to provide rail transportation from Washington D.C. through Richmond and Petersburg in Virginia to Raleigh and Charlotte in North Carolina. The SEHSR will connect to Boston in the Northeast corridor and will now extend south to places such as Atlanta and Macon, Ga., and Jacksonville, Fla.

“Because of the economy and gas process, people want options to get from point A to point B,” state Senator Yvonne B. Miller (D-5th District) said. “They are getting frustrated when they are stuck in line. The only reason they’re not revolting now is because of the music and all the distractions in the car.”

The Virginia members of the initiative expressed concerns that things are not moving quickly enough toward the implementation of high-speed rail. It’s difficult for Virginians to get excited about a train that may not arrive for 20 to 30 years, they said, and that lack of momentum has had a huge effect on the public’s support for the idea.

“We need them to be vocal with the state. There needs to be a ground swell from the people who want to use the trains,” Miller said. “I don’t think we can sit and hold hands expecting to get that 20 percent match. We need to have a meeting this election year.”

Service is planned throughout Virginia and North Carolina. Individual projects include Raleigh to Charlotte; Washington D.C. to the Richmond area; the Richmond area to Petersburg and Raleigh; and Petersburg to Norfolk.

Virginians need to convince federal officials that high-speed rail is a priority, speakers said.

“There is a risk of payback. We run the risk of not achieving the benefits,” said Kevin Page, chief of Rail Transportation for Virginia’s Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT). “We still face challenges with the federal program, the future of the program and the sustainability of the program.”

Page brought up several problems that the rail development faces today and suggested that a strategy was necessary if the state’s goals for high-speed rail are to have any promise of sustainability.

“There are many questions about looking toward the future,” he said. “Today, divided states need to compete against each other for funds. With $600 million worth of projects, there needs to be a long term funding strategy that can keep everything funded.”

There seems to be a lack of consistency in the Federal Railroad Administration’s state requirements. North Carolina submitted a 90 mph project while Virginia submitted a 70 mph project. North Carolina’s agreement states that the goal is a 79 mph project with a study to achieve 90 mph, but Virginia’s agreement has required a 90 mph project with an additional crossover at Arkendale.

Miller suggested putting Hampton Roads more prominently on the high-speed rail map. Since the area houses military members, such service there could improve efficiency for them and others in the community, she said.

“There is an omission of the military aspect,” Miller said. “Roads are jammed, and they will take the military out if we don’t improve the rail service or the highway.”

The FRA’s High Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Fund List reveals that Virginia is entitled to only $120 million in funding (11th nationally), while California is receiving $4.239 billion, Illinois is receiving $1.379 billion and North Carolina is receiving $572 million.

Funding for the SEHSR comes from the United States Department of Transportation (USDOT) and from the states of Virginia and North Carolina. Both states currently fund several Amtrak operated non-high speed rail services as well as their own locomotives and passenger cars.

The SEHSR’s first large section including the cities in Virginia and North Carolina up to Washington D.C. is scheduled to begin service 2018 and 2022.

Those present at this month’s meeting are planning a trip to Washington D.C. in September or October to stand together before the Senate and House members from both states to lobby for rail development sooner rather than later.
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