Vindictive senator? Wampler tries to block new rail link
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