Richmond shut-out: Budgets shred local rail plan

On the eve of the biggest recent boost for state passenger train service – creation of a multi-million-dollar dedicated fund– Charlottesville's hopes for new trains appear dashed by two General Assembly budget bills that emerged last week.

"There is no good news for Charlottesville," says Meredith Richards, the former Charlottesville vice-mayor who has nurtured the hope of additional rail connections throughout Virginia.

While both the House and Senate budgets would create a dedicated fund for rail projects, neither bill mentions the D.C.-to-Charlottesville extension of the Virginia Rail Express that the state's top rail official endorsed in a January report. Instead, the Senate budget specifically endorses another plan, the Bristol-to-Richmond run of the TransDominion Express endorsed by Senator William Wampler.

"What he's put on track is a service that disconnects Charlottesville," says Richards, who believes the TDX, as it's called, would be doomed by this path through such a sparsely populated part of the state.

Richards, reiterating the fears she first expressed in a December 23 Hook story, believes that the Bristol-area senator's desire to link his hometown to the capital will result in such poor ridership and such massive subsidies that the public will completely sour on the whole TDX idea.

While Wampler has not returned calls from the Hook, the top TDX lobbyist– who crashed a Richards press conference in January– defended the Wampler plan– not on any ridership studies, but on "economic development" grounds.

As she examined the two budget proposals, Richards says, she was surprised by Wampler's "micromanaging." The Senate budget specifically mandates that the TDX offer shuttle services to train stops and that a college campus be served. But chances for the TDX to serve Farmville– a town with two colleges– have been dashed by recent abandonment of that Norfolk Southern rail line.

"What we're seeing is Senator Wampler's influence," says Richards. She hopes that if the Governor and Secretary of Transportation hear from citizens who want a Charlottesville-Washington train funded, they will advocate for it during the upcoming conference committee negotiations.

Karen Rae, the state's director of Rail and Public Transportation, who had earlier endorsed a Roanoke-to-D.C. run of the TDX (via Charlottesville), wrote a January report that seemed to endorse both the Wampler plan and the VRE extension to Charlottesville.

The VRE extension would cost $3.1 million for a year of service, according to Rae's report, while the TDX Bristol-to-Richmond demonstration would cost $28 million while requiring passengers to spend 10 hours on the rails– a trip a car can make in just 6.5 hours.

"It depends on how you define success," says Rae. "We think the start-up service for the TDX makes some sense." She says it's an "alternative" that increases mobility, and she reiterates the economic benefits for what she calls "an economically challenged area."

Rae also points out that the $9.3 million allocated for the TDX in the 2000 General Assembly was a result of Wampler's perseverance. "He's the senator who delivered the first and only money that the TransDominion Express has seen," says Rae.

Rae's biggest worry now is President Bush's proposal to stop subsidizing Amtrak, a move that could kill Charlottesville's already anemic rail service. "The good news," she says "is that everyone wants rail."

Is there anything for Charlottesville to smile about?

Rae says the Rail Partnership Fund– $26-$33 million– should give all Virginians cause for optimism.

"It's a good sign that both budgets do create a rail fund," Richards concurs. "So our rail fund is a go."

That Rail Partnership Fund could eventually support a Washington-Charlottesville project, Richards says. "What the Charlottesville-Washington project needs is an advocate."