Vindictive senator? Wampler tries to block new rail link

Workers connect an electric engine on the northbound "Cardinal" January 23, in Washington.

Charlottesville's proposed rail link to New York, enjoying the support of the governor and over 20 localities, was widely considered a done deal–- until the alleged "vindictiveness" of a single state senator.

A budget amendment by William C. Wampler Jr., based in the far southwestern part of the state, threatens to deny funding for the new twice-daily Piedmont passenger trains until similar service is available all the way to the Tennessee border-straddling city that lies in Wampler's district.

"It's a good example of provincialism," says Meredith Richards, the president of Virginians for High-Speed Rail. "If we can't have it, nobody can."

In November, the state's secretary of transportation, one of the governor's cabinet members, endorsed a three-year plan to extend an existing round-trip Amtrak train between Washington D.C. and New York south to Lynchburg. By covering the expected $1.9 million gap between annual passenger revenues and operating costs, Virginia indicated a desire to spur economic development, help citizens without private vehicles, and offer environmental benefits by yanking cars from highways.

"There's all the good reasons to have the service," says Lynchburg City Councilor Bert Dodson Jr., "and you've got one state senator from Bristol who wants to sabotage the arrangement."

Dodson notes that 22 local governments have endorsed the service, Amtrak has agreed to run it, and–- along with another state-subsidized route linking D.C. to Richmond and Newport News–- the Kaine administration has decreed it a priority.

In one swoop, the new service would give Charlottesville a 70 percent increase in local passenger trains. And the Commonwealth Transportation Board plans to meet February 5 to approve it, part of the state's six-year transportation plan, unless Wampler's amendment passes.

"It's really disappointing at this late stage," says Dodson. "Hopefully, it won't be derailed by Senator Wampler's vindictiveness."

Dodson may be encouraged to learn that the Governor Tim Kaine opposes the amendment.

"We are working closely with Norfolk Southern and Amtrak to pilot passengers from Lynchburg to D.C.–- that's where the ridership is right now," says the governor's press secretary, Gordon Hickey. "Once we know how this works, we intend to expand the service down to Bristol."

Senator Wampler was not immediately available for comment, and the concerns haven't yet reached him, according to colleague Janet Settle. "We've not heard any feedback," she says.

Although a longtime champion for passenger rail service, Wampler has a history as a champion for Bristol–- a city which lies at roughly the same longitude as Detroit, but his passions can collide. Wampler first tried to override the state transportation secretary in 2004 by demanding Bristol's inclusion in the pilot program.

Richards, who has been pushing rail service since her time on Charlottesville's City Council nearly a decade ago, contends that extending it all the way to Bristol would cost over $200 million just in track improvements.

Rail supporters say they might be more understanding if the Wampler amendment had cited fiscal conservatism or the economic crisis as reasons for delaying the service. But even Wampler's accompanying explanation doesn't do that; it simply demands parity for Bristol.

"It would kill it, and it would kill it indefinitely," says Daniel Plaugher, the director of Virginians for High Speed Rail.

Plaugher and Richards say they extolled the Piedmont plan in conversations with members of the Senate Finance Committee Wednesday, January 28, and they plan to lobby some more next week. They're cautiously encouraged that Wampler, a Republican, is no longer the powerful majority member he once was.

"He's being a good senator for his district in one sense," says Plaugher. " But they'll never get anything if they don't take it in pieces."

–last updated 11:55am Friday, January 30


It's all about politics, can't blame him for trying

ââ?¬Å?He’s being a good senator for his district in one sense by trying to get a piece of the pie,” says Plaugher.

Couple of items:

First, for those of us who don't know Meredith Richards from who-in-hell, a short title or some sort of credential connected to the woman's name would be helpful so we don't have to go a-Googling. Thanks.

Second, I can see Wampler's point of view, although I have no position on this train issue. Wampler (and by extension the people he represents) has been trying for a lot longer than Meredith Richards' "nearly a decade" effort to secure passenger rail service to one of the more impoverished areas of the state. It's a simple effort to open up one more economic avenue.

One could make the case (and I am sure Wampler would) that far Southwest Virginia needs such rail service as badly as Charlottesville, if not moreso. It's convenient and affordable. Airline service in and out of Southwest Virginia is rather sketchy. Most flights are routed through Charlotte. And on a per capita basis, people in Wampler's district can ill-afford airfare. But a train ticket is manageable.

All this talk of provincialism cuts both ways. In sum, fair is fair.

There are two good arguments against Senator Wampler's current approach to the issue, related to cost and future prospects.
Cost: The setup cost of service to Lynchburg is effectively zero. Amtrak has the equipment and Norfolk Southern has the tracks. The setup cost of service to Bristol is currently estimated at over $200 million (See above article). The tracks aren't there. That's a huge difference. The Lynchburg route is possible now even in the current economy; the Bristol route isn't.
Achieving what many want, if the 21 Piedmont jurisdictions voting unanimously for the Lynchburg train and regional rail is any indication: If we wait until that service is affordable and politically palatable, we'll be waiting a long time. By establishing the Lynchburg service now, we'll be able to demonstrate the viability of regional rail service, at a very affordable cost. That success will lend more credence to Senator Wampler's argument for a train on to Bristol than anything else I can imagine.
Let's do what's affordable now, and then use it's success as an argument for high quality regional rail throughout Virginia.

Hey Charlottesville wouldn't this money be better spent getting trucks off the 29 corridor.

How about making an investment in putting containers on trains also called intermodal freight transport from Baltimore/D.C. to North Carolina before investing millions of dollars to move a few passengers.

This is a good example of why people hate politicians with a vengance. Hopefully whatever criminal enterprize he statisically is involved in will come to light so he will have to resign.

Reading the comments following this article I don't think that it's only Wampler who has problems with this train

I agree with commenter #1 it's a matter of priorities and any money on trains should first be spent getting truck freight off the roads and onto trains

Why is it that politicians, particularly Republicans, seem to have a knack for being able to hold up legislation that represents progress and benefits the many in an effort to benefit the few (at a much higher cost, of course)? I'm all for rail service to SW VA. How to pay for it? Simple - a fare surcharge on all of those good citizens in SW VA who want to use the train. Let's generous and figure 100 of those folks (which is, I'm sure, extremely inflated) will take advantage of the new route daily. Now, it's expensive so let's charge them a $100 surcharge. At that rate, it'll only take 54 years to pay for the improvements.

When DC completes the $3T giveaway, EVERYBODY RIDES!

The purpose of a commentary (as was heard on Real Sports last year) is not to take the passive route but to stimulate and provoke thought. B. Gumbel's very strong opionions are not based on ego (are you kidding me!) is it based on his expereince and view of the lack of African Americans participating -- that is fact. Sometimes people are uncomfortable with the facts.
Most of the very large audience that HBO has is far more intelligent than you make think.