Rail advocates hope Virginia’s new authority will take ‘politics out of our rail policy’

By: - December 9, 2020 12:02 am

Interstate 95 winds past Main Street Station in Richmond. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

When former Gov. Doug Wilder sold off the state’s interest in hundreds of miles of track and rail right of way in the early 1990s, the move was applauded by the Republican-dominated legislature as a prudent divestment to help balance the annual budget.

Since then, though, the state has spent millions more on track improvements benefitting railroad corporations in exchange for every increase in passenger train service Virginia has sought. To avoid another such flash sale of Virginia’s rail infrastructure and to oversee an increasing focus on boosting passenger rail capacity to combat congestion, this March the General Assembly created the brand new Virginia Passenger Rail Authority.

That body — established as an independent agency under the Department of Rail and Public Transportation — should function as an additional layer of protection for Gov. Ralph Northam’s $3.7 billion track acquisition deal with CSX last year as well as any future rail investments. With Virginia’s share of transportation related greenhouse gas emissions rising and the prospect of massive investment from America’s new Amtrak rider-in-chief, Joe Biden, advocates and state officials alike hope the commonwealth’s new passenger rail authority has arrived just in time to cash in on a potential “second great rail revolution”.

Independent and consistent

Critics of Virginia’s single four-year term governorship often complain that by the time the administration has gotten a hang of its duties and the bureaucratic levers of power, it gets ejected from office by constitutional term limits. Perhaps in no realm of policy making is that critique louder than in the world of rail where the timespan between an initial investment and the final product can often take up to a decade.

That’s why the rail advocacy group Virginians for High Speed Rail has been pushing for an independent, long-term oriented rail authority in the commonwealth since the group’s inception 26 years ago. “Every four years our state’s leadership changes, the personnel changes, and there’s not that consistent, overarching vision that’s necessary to achieve big gains in passenger rail,” said Danny Plaugher, executive director of the group. “This authority is so important because it takes the politics out of our rail policy a bit.”

The new authority’s insulation from day-to-day government fights as an independent agency is designed to prevent political meddling from derailing Virginia’s big plans to increase train travel in an effort to reduce congestion, foster economic growth and lower carbon pollution.

“Its independence elevates the authority and the whole concept of sustaining and expanding commuter and passenger rail in the commonwealth,” said Jay Fisette, a new rail authority board member and the managing principal at DMV Strategic Advisors. “When you create such a body, you give it different opportunities and a level of importance and autonomy similar to the port authority.”

The designation as an authority will also allow the new agency to own Virginia’s rail infrastructure directly, leverage more creative contractual arrangements with private and federal partners and enter into long-term agreements that wouldn’t be possible for DPRT which is legally limited to a maximum of six year commitments. 

“Now that the commonwealth is acquiring big assets like right of way, tracks and the Long Bridge, we saw a need for an independent board to have more flexibility in procurement and hiring practices, do oversight of how those assets are managed and have a dedicated staff of experts focused on managing passenger and commuter rail,” said Jennifer Mitchell, DRPT’s executive director.

Railroad tracks near Downtown Richmond. (AiRVA Photo)

Regional representation

Under Northam’s omnibus transportation bill passed earlier this year, rail is allotted 7.5 percent of the new money in the state’s transportation trust fund (roughly $167 million according to pre-pandemic projections) — 93 percent of which will go directly to the passenger rail authority. That funding stream will allow the authority to sign contracts for new commuter and intercity service such as hourly D.C. to RVA trains and potentially secure financing for proposed projects like the Commonwealth Corridor, an east-west rail connection from Hampton Roads to Roanoke and beyond.

Before the authority can get around to any ambitious future plans, it must first get all of its board members up to speed, hire an executive director and begin hiring staff to execute the many contracts and projects ahead. Besides three non-voting members from DRPT, Amtrak and Virginia Rail Express — the state’s only commuter rail service — three members each hail from the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission and the Potomac & Rappahannock Transportation Commission. Representatives from Greater Richmond, Hampton Roads and the Southwest comprise the other half of the board’s voting members.

Beyond the regional requirements laid out for board members in the legislation, DRPT put forward a list of suggested board members with an eye toward bringing on a range of backgrounds and diverse perspectives. “We wanted to make sure the board has people with strong financial and legal experience as well as political savvy,” Mitchell said. “They need to understand community outreach, public participation and how to work with local officials. You don’t want a board full of lawyers, but you also want a few people with legal backgrounds who feel comfortable reading contracts.”

Despite the authority’s focus on infrastructure investments like the Long Bridge — a second set of tracks over the Potomac —  and DC2RVA, the first step towards higher speed rail between the capitals and to other points along the East Coast, that are almost inherently intergenerational due to their often long time frames till completion, the board lacks any Millennials or younger members. The first iteration of the board may skew towards “steady hands,” but that doesn’t mean the authority won’t be planning for the needs of the next generations.

“What’s really exciting about Millennials is their changing habits as it relates to mobility,” Fisette said. “Part of our role is to make sure this body serves Virginians of all groups and demographics out there from seniors to teens. The more people we can connect with rail and transit, the healthier we are all going to be.”

A rail revolution?

State officials and advocates alike are hoping that with Amtrak’s most famous passenger soon entering the Oval Office, America might get a long-promised infrastructure plan with trains taking center stage. “I would hope our focus on rail in Virginia puts us in a great position for new potential federal investments in rail,” said Mariia Zimmerman, a rail authority board member and founder of the Richmond-based planning policy firm MZ Strategies. “We’re connecting our state to the nation’s capital so Washington won’t be able to miss us.” 

Mitchell said the work Virginia has been doing to prioritize passenger rail may be enough to catch the attention of the incoming administration. “This rail authority puts us in a position to provide an example for states across the country and also to demonstrate to the [federal] Department of Transportation that there are new ways to expand passenger rail in America,” she said. “We’re bringing a lot of resources to the table in terms of state, regional and local transportation dollars, but we certainly can’t do this alone. We still need a strong federal partner. The agreements that we have in place hopefully position us well to bring in more federal funding to make all of these plans happen.”

As soon as Biden’s victory became official, images of possible countrywide high speed rail systems began circulating on social media. However, calls from activists for as much as one trillion dollars in rail investment to serve as the cornerstone of a potential Green New Deal ignore the fact that Biden rejected that degree of spending as a candidate just months ago. 

“I would love to see those excited about climate policy get more involved in transportation,” Zimmerman said. “We have to think of a future for Virginia in which transit and rail are bigger pieces of our transportation network than just sitting on I-95 for hours. Public transportation yields far larger economic growth and has a much more holistic community and climate impact than everybody just driving around their own electric car.”

Fisette also said there’s much more to be done to make Virginia’s transportation safer and greener. “There have been some significant expansion of rail lines over the last couple of years but there is a lot more we can do to improve our air quality, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and enhance safety. The more real options we provide for people from population centers to activity centers, the higher quality of life we’re going to create,” he said.

The board held its first meeting in October and the next is scheduled for Dec. 14. “This is a really exciting time to be in passenger rail,” Mitchell said. “It’s so heartening to stand up an organization that represents a new way of doing business and a new generation of rail in the commonwealth.”

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Wyatt Gordon
Wyatt Gordon

Wyatt Gordon covers transportation, housing, and land use for the Mercury through a grant from the Piedmont Environmental Council and the Coalition for Smarter Growth. The Mercury retains full editorial control. Previously he’s written for the Times of India, Nairobi News, Honolulu Civil Beat, Style Weekly and RVA Magazine. He also works as a policy manager for land use and transportation at the Virginia Conservation Network.