Rail fan: Guv wants more trains

Gov. Mark R. Warner hopes to get rail transportation moving in Virginia. He recently announced the creation of the Commission on Rail Enhancement for the 21st century.

"This is a really very strong statement by the governor of his belief that rail is a critical part of the infrastructure of Virginia,'' says Karen Rae, director of the Department of Rail and Public Transportation.

"Rail's got to be in the mix," Warner said in mid-May. "I don't think you want a single mode of transport: asphalt."

State Sen. John S. Edwards (D-Roanoke) and Sen. John Watkins (R-Chesterfield) sponsored a bill creating an independent rail authority, but it died in the Senate's busy Appropriations Committee, even though Rae's office and the governor supported it.

In order to move ahead with the plan, Warner issued an executive order, which he announced at the May 18 annual meeting of a group called Virginians for High Speed Rail. The group sees an authority as the best way for railroads to fund track improvements to enable such projects as the TransDominion Express– a proposed train connecting Bristol to Washington via Charlottesville and to Richmond.

CSX and Norfolk Southern have already agreed to a surcharge on new freight that would provide a revenue stream for authority bonds.

Warner has not yet named the seven-member commission, but Rae says the appointments are expected soon.

The commission's first chore, to be completed by December 1, will be recommendations on advancing a "more aggressive rail agenda in the Commonwealth,'' Rae says.

The commission will consider a number of rail initiatives, expected to cost $2-$3 billion.

They include improving passenger and freight service between Richmond and Washington, and improving freight service along Interstates 81 and 95. Other projects include extending the northeast's high-speed rail system– which currently terminates in Washington– through Richmond to Norfolk, Hampton, and Raleigh/Durham.

Rae says the real challenge will be finding funding for the projects, which will require partnerships between the public and private sectors.

"These rail projects," the governor observes, "do seem like they take forever."

Governor Mark R. Warner wants to get Virginians working on the railroads.

City Councilor Meredith Richards has served on the steering committee of the TransDominion Express, which would benefit from the governor's action.