Saturday, April 20, 2024

A new passenger rail corridor could connect Hampton Roads to Blacksburg and beyond

The Amtrak platform in downtown Roanoke. (Wyatt Gordon)

RICHMOND — The drive between Richmond and Charlottesville takes a little over an hour. However, to take a train for the same trip requires eight and a half hours. The picture is similarly bleak for travelers between Norfolk and Roanoke: the four-and-a-half-hour drive takes nearly four times as long via train — 16 hours.

The Commonwealth Corridor, a proposed east-west rail connection, would put both train trips at parity with their road counterparts, making passenger rail travel across Virginia faster, cheaper and more convenient.

Department of Rail and Public Transportation Director Jennifer DeBruhl said an official study on the project shows Virginians are excited about the prospect and eager for the state to keep expanding its rail network.

“Right now all routes in the state terminate in DC, so the potential to do an east-west route to me is really exciting,” she said. “It’s making a connection that opens up a whole different type of rail travel in the commonwealth.”

So how long could it take before people can ride the rails straight across the state?

From Blacksburg to the beach

The origins of the idea for an east-west connection — the first in the state in over 40 years — date back to a 2018 report released by Virginians for High Speed Rail, the Southern Environmental Law Center, Virginia21 and both the Hampton Roads and Roanoke Regional Chambers of Commerce.

The concept became far more concrete in 2020, when Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, and Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, introduced a proposal to conduct a feasibility study for the project at the General Assembly. The idea passed nearly unanimously, and DRPT has spent the past two years calculating the potential cost, ridership and timeline of the Commonwealth Corridor.

As currently envisioned, the new route would run from Blacksburg to Newport News via Roanoke, Charlottesville, Richmond and Williamsburg, with the potential for a southern spur to Norfolk as well.

Clocking in at a projected $416 million price tag, the proposal is no light lift; however, considering the legislature doled out $190 million of general funds this year to widen just 29 miles of Interstate 64, a new 280-mile-long rail connection seems like a bargain in comparison. Those cost estimates also include all of the necessary kit to run the route, like new engines and train cars.

Virginia acquired the 186 miles of track that comprises the Buckingham Branch, the freight rail corridor from Doswell to Clifton Forge, in a $3.7 billion deal with CSX that former Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration brokered in December 2019.

(Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation)

Once the Commonwealth Corridor is completed, every day there would be two round trips in each direction, carrying a projected 170,000 passengers per year. Currently, trains carry 1.56 million passengers in Virginia each year, meaning the completion of the corridor would boost rail ridership in the state by over one-tenth. But even that estimate is likely low, according to Danny Plaugher, executive director of Virginians for High Speed Rail.

“Usually ridership models are quite conservative, so we could actually be looking at way more passengers per year,” he said. “The Lynchburg line was only anticipated to have 40,000 riders and broke 120,000. Virginians love their trains, and this study shows there is tremendous demand, as not a lot of folks particularly enjoy driving I-64 through the mountains.”

All aboard to Cville

After Newport News — the likely eastern terminus of the route, as running trains farther south to Norfolk would add on an hour of travel time and additional costs — Charlottesville is likely to log the highest ridership on the Commonwealth Corridor. According to DRPT, the stretch of rail between Charlottesville and Hampton Roads is expected to generate three-fourths of all passenger traffic on the route.

A faster connection between the city and the rest of the commonwealth is a no-brainer to Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville: “Getting between here and Williamsburg is a real slog today, but our two cities have so much in common and could really benefit from fast, affordable connections,” she said. “There are tons of people who live in Charlottesville and work in Richmond, even more so now since remote work has taken off. A direct train to the capital would make productive commutes possible.”

It’s good that Charlottesville shows the highest demand for the Commonwealth Corridor, as the infrastructure upgrades to serve it add up to roughly $409.8 million — 98% of the total cost of the project.

Most of that money would go toward the corridor between Gordonsville and Doswell, a community roughly 20 miles north of Richmond.“The rest of the corridor is already providing passenger rail service, whereas that stretch is only set up to accommodate freight,” DeBruhl explained.

To bring it up to safety standards for passenger rail will require a nearly complete reconstruction of the rails.

To Hudson, the infrastructure improvements are well worth the investment to connect different parts of the commonwealth.

“The rest of Virginia has incredible assets in all of our communities that could be unleashed by this kind of transportation,” she said. “We love the quality of life in our cities and towns across Central and Southwestern Virginia, but because of the lack of meaningful mass transit it can be hard to travel between them. There is no serious solution to our climate crisis that doesn’t include massive investments into trains. We know we need to improve Virginia’s rail connections, so why not start now?”

A construction crunch

The fact that the new east-west route may only be service-ready by the end of this decade at best is a paradoxically a sign of DRPT’s success. Just last month the agency launched a second train from Roanoke to DC. A plan for high-speed rail between Raleigh and Richmond received $58 million in funding this summer. The state is on track to complete a new Christiansburg station and launch service to the New River Valley in 2026. There’s also a project underway that will double the capacity of the Long Bridge — currently the only north-south rail connection east of Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia.

The Virginia Passenger Rail Authority has a list of a dozen projects that all fall under its ambitious Transforming Rail in Virginia initiative. For the Commonwealth Corridor to join them, it must be officially adopted into the Statewide Rail Plan that will be finished later this year.

Even once the project is officially part of the state’s long-term plan, the biggest hurdles will be funding and bureaucratic capacity.

There is no serious solution to our climate crisis that doesn’t include massive investments into trains.

– Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville

“The state is more or less tapped out with the $4 billion Transforming Rail program,” explained Plaugher. “We should be happy that we are, because this is one of the top-10 largest investments in rail in the last few decades, but until the Long Bridge is done, the state doesn’t know what resources will be available beyond 2030. Every federal dollar we get for our current plans will open up state dollars to be spent on other projects like the Commonwealth Corridor.”

President Biden’s federal infrastructure bill allocated $66 billion to passenger rail across America. If Virginia were to receive $2 billion of those dollars, Plaugher hopes the rail authority could complete the Commonwealth Corridor sometime in the 2030s. If the project has to wait on state dollars, the cross-Virginia connection may not be done until 2040, he fears.

“Our goal is to bring back as much federal funding as possible to Virginia — more than our fair share,” said DeBruhl. But the state needs “to be strategic in our asks and show the commonwealth that we are committed to delivering the corridors already in our plan before we get to additional corridors,” she added.

Although Plaugher sees an ally in DRPT, he said he intends to keep applying pressure to secure an accelerated timeline for completion of the east-west rail route in Virginia.

“This push for a Commonwealth Corridor is citizen-led,” he said. “This is a grassroots movement as opposed to something that began legislatively or administratively. I hear from everyday people all the time: ‘Why isn’t this already a thing?’”

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