$57 million for NoVa rail approved

Handing railroad believers another victory in their quest to try trains before lanes, the state of Virginia announced today that it has signed a $57 million public-private partnership to expand capacity in the I-81/I-66 rail corridor. The action comes one week after the STAR Solutions consortium backed away from what had once been a $13 billion plan to widen I-81 with extra lanes and toll booths for trucks.

The Commonwealth is handing over $40 million while Norfolk Southern is chipping in $17 million to add signals and additional track along the company's clogged rail corridor near I-66 in Northern Virginia.

"Increasing the capacity and reliability of rail service will provide congestion relief for highways and more transportation choices," said Department of Rail and Public Transportation Director Matthew O. Tucker in a prepared statement.

Tucker also noted that the expansion–- between Manassas and Front Royal–- will accelerate the push for commuter Virginia Rail Express passenger service to the Gainesville/Haymarket area.

Could would-be Charlottesville rail riders benefit soon? Probably not, according to Meredith Richards, the rail booster and former City Councilor who convened a rail summit in November. Richards says the upgrade is simply part of the "I-81 Crescent Corridor," an over $2 billion effort that Norfolk Southern announced last June to improve its Louisiana-to-Philadelphia corridor to get more business off highways and on rails.

"It does good things for passenger rail in Northern Virginia," says Richards, "but not for us here."

Richards says that, in the short term, the planned double tracking on the I-66-area line could have the ironic effect of pushing more freight traffic onto Norfolk Southern's so-called Piedmont Line, the one that connects Charlottesville to Washington.

"We have a long way to go," says Richards.