Formal agreements between CSX, Amtrak and Virginia Railway Express were signed Tuesday, clearing the way for further work on the state’s $3.7 billion Transforming Rail in Virginia project.
Joined by U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg and Virginia Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine, Gov. Ralph Northam announced the agreement between the parties that will ultimately bring about the construction of a new passenger-only bridge over the Potomac River and transfer 386 miles of right-of-way and 223 miles of track from CSX to the commonwealth.
By 2030, Northam’s plan would nearly double the number of Virgina-supported Amtrak trains for roughly hourly peak service from Washington, D.C. to Richmond, and increase VRE service by about 60%, including weekend service for the commuter rail.
Under the agreement, CSX will retain the right-of-way over the existing Long Bridge, but a new passenger-train bridge would be constructed over the Potomac, clearing one of the area’s biggest rail bottlenecks to allow more trains to run.
“Today we’re celebrating a major milestone in our work to make it easier for people and goods to move around Virginia and up and down our east coast,” Northam said at the Alexandria VRE and Amtrak station Tuesday morning. “... It will be easier to hop on Amtrak to New York for the weekend, it will be easier to commute to work using VRE, and it will be easier to take a train from southwest Virginia to Northern Virginia.”
The project would also “lay the foundation” for high-speed rail south of Richmond, though no such service is currently in the works.
Last year, Northam and the General Assembly created the Virginia Passenger Rail Authority, which will manage passenger and commuter rail service in the commonwealth and oversee capital projects and land acquisitions for the project.
The Long Bridge Act of 2020, which authorizes the National Park Service to convey land needed for the project to Virginia, was passed in the House of Representatives and assigned to committee in the senate last year. The project will also require action from the General Assembly allowing debt financing that won’t count against Virginia’s debt ceiling.Ultimately, some of the state’s share of the project’s financing will come from bonds backed by toll revenues from VDOT’s I-66 Inside the Beltway project.
Northam said the project was a more efficient and environmentally-friendly option that expanding highway service along Interstate 95 would be. State estimates, he said, showed that to expand the highway by one lane in each direction over 50 miles would cost $12.5 billion, and that by the time the project was complete congestion would be as bad as it currently is. The expanded rail service can be achieved at a lower cost with far greater capacity and less greenhouse-gas emissions.
“All of the cars on the road come with a price. Every year in Virginia, vehicle travelers experience 230 million hours of delays … resulting in $6.5 billion in annual congestion costs,” Northam said. “But adding more highway lanes isn’t the answer.”
Buttigieg was at the announcement to show support for the state’s initiative and tout Democrats’ $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, signed into law by President Joe Biden earlier this month.
Included in it is money for transit providers to maintain or return service to pre-pandemic levels and avoid layoffs resulting from decreased ridership during the pandemic. VRE and OmniRide are still waiting to find out exactly how much they’ll receive.
“We are proud to say on behalf of this administration, help is here. Thanks to the American Rescue Plan … more than $43 billion will go to support our nation’s transportation system, our passengers and our workers,” Buttigieg said Tuesday. “In the Washington metropolitan area alone, $1.4 billion has been set aside under the American Rescue Plan to provide economic relief to transit operators in the D.C. area, Maryland suburbs and Northern Virginia.”