Rail to fail? Bristol senator blamed for impending doom

Plans for a new commuter rail service that could have given Charlottesvillians two new options to reach D.C. each morning may have been dealt a fatal blow– ironically by a proposed test run of the project.

That's the view of former City Councilor Meredith Richards, who has spent six years on the board of the TransDominion Express, or TDX, a state-subsidized effort to start passenger trains rolling through the western side of the state, with the prospect of four daily whistle stops in Charlottesville.

Richards believes that one powerful state senator, William C. Wampler Jr. (R-Bristol)– in his zeal to ensure his hometown's early participation– has accidentally derailed the project.

"As he wants to configure it," says Richards, "it's going to fail."

The problem, she explains, is that Wampler wants to run the pilot program from Tennessee-straddling Bristol through sparsely populated southside Virginia and on to Richmond

Though she recognizes that Wampler spearheaded the project with the purpose of getting his isolated constituents a rail line, Richards predicts that after his test runs draw disappointing passenger traffic, legislators will rebuff requests for the ongoing subsidies the project demands.

Richards claims Wampler, a majority party member of the Senate Finance Committee, overrode the state's director of the Department of Rail and Public Transportation, Karen Rae. Richards says that in June Rae proposed a one-train-a-day pilot program serving Charlottesville and other more populous areas between Roanoke and Washington, D.C. (Rae's plan reserved the Roanoke-to-Bristol and Lynchburg-to-Richmond links for a later phase.)

While Rae was out of the office last week, her boss, Governor Mark Warner, is waiting for her report– due January 10– to the General Assembly, according to the governor's spokesperson, Ellen Qualls. Key to that study, Qualls says, is a study by Norfolk Southern on anticipated costs.

"Generally speaking, the governor is supportive of Senator Wampler's interest in providing rail access to southwestern Virginia," says Qualls. "We'll have to see what the study shows."

Until Wampler's move in October, Richards thought the TDX picture was pretty rosy. The governor has repeatedly expressed support for the project, the General Assembly had already set aside $9.3 million, and Norfolk Southern, the railroad which owns most of the tracks, had agreed to supply and operate the locomotives.

In his opening state budget salvo on December 9, the governor proposed spending $23 million annually to improve the state's rail network.

Money's another beef Richards has with Wampler's plan. Improving the D.C. to Roanoke rails for TDX would cost $35.9 million, says Richards, while the stretch all the way to Bristol would add $31.4 million.

Wampler declined to return the Hook's repeated phone calls to his Bristol office. However, the chairman of the TDX steering committee, Abingdon vice-mayor French Moore Jr., wishes Richards would stop complaining.

"What she's doing is hurting the whole project," says Moore. "Wampler's the guy to help us get the money. He's probably the number-two man on the Senate Finance Committee, and probably the second- or third-ranking Republican– you just can't turn your back on that kind of person."

Moore says that Northern Virginia already has Virginia Railway Express, and Charlottesville already has Amtrak. "We don't have anything," says Moore.

"I hate that it's not through Charlottesville," says Moore, "but if we want to see it happen, we have to go along with what Senator Wampler says."

While Moore believes ridership on the pilot program will be strong, veteran state Delegate Mitch Van Yahres (D-Charlottesville), says he's seen first-hand how strong demand is in the more northern corridor. When Van Yahres recently rode the rails between to Washington and New York, he found Amtrak "jammed" with a car full of UVA students and other Charlottesville passengers.

"Senator Wampler seems to have an awful lot of control over the situation," says Van Yahres, "but I would like to see the pilot program take the best shot it can, and the best shot is through here."

Another wrinkle in Wampler's plan is the loss of Farmville. The two-college town was supposed to be a key stop on the Bristol-to-Richmond leg, but on September 30 Norfolk Southern filed an application to abandon the branch line running through Farmville.

Michael Testerman, long-time president of the Virginia Association of Railway Patrons, believes that Roanoke-to-Washington is the "strongest leg," but he doesn't share fears that the Bristol pilot program necessarily dooms the TDX.

"I'm sure [Wampler] wants to ride the train to Richmond, and bless his heart," says Testerman, "but what we need is for the state to find dedicated funds to sponsor the entire TransDominion Express service and initiate it all at once."

Meredith Richards blasts Wampler's vision.