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New transit bill leaves big impact for VRE

The new transportation bill that strikes down the gasoline tax but raises other taxes to fund billions of dollars worth of transportation projects throughout the commonwealth has its share of supporters of critics on both sides of the aisle.

Away from politics though, the Virginia Railway Express is coming out as one of the big winners from the legislation.

Mark Roeber, the manager of public affairs for VRE, said on Monday that the money going to the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority means the railway company may have more options for adding trains, stations, platforms and commuting options, including "reverse flow."

That latter option would have trains run from north to south during the morning rush hours and south to north during the afternoon and evening rush hours.

While exact funding numbers for specific projects in the area are still a ways off, a separate bill (SB1140) that passed the legislature sets aside money specifically for mass transit agencies that can encourage people not to drive to work.

That's VRE's bread-and-butter sales pitch as officials like Roeber tout how one train at full capacity can carry up to 1,500 people.

"We see it a greater opportunity to expand the role of VRE in the region," said Roeber about the new legislation. "And the reason for that is ... the metrics there talk about systems adding core capacity or growing in a way to help alleviate congestion."

Locally, Roeber mentioned that a westward expansion from the Broad Run station at Manassas Regional Airport to the Gainesville-Haymarket area is still in the plans.

Before any decisions can be made though, an environmental study that has been on the books for years still needs to be finished in order to determine how an expansion would affect land and waterways in the path of the railroad.

"I would hope that within the next couple months the environmental work will get itself wrapped up, said Roeber, later adding that officials hope that "before the end of this calendar year, this phase will be completed."

One advantage for VRE and other mass transit agencies, such as Metro and bus lines, is that they came up with expansion plans six years ago, the last time the legislature passed a comprehensive transportation plan.

That bill, known in Richmond-speak as "HB3202,” would have created in Northern Virginia a non-elected authority to levy taxes for transportation projects.

The state Supreme Court ruled such an authority unconstitutional because those officials would not have been elected directly.

But before the court struck down that law, the transit groups had already done the ground work. And even though the law was deemed unconstitutional, that ground work didn't go away.

In Prince William County, VRE's wish-list for new stations includes one at Potomac Shores in Woodbridge and another two or three west of Manassas.

That could include a stop in the Sudley Manor corridor, another in Gainesville and one in Haymarket.

While there is little significant opposition to the first two, the Haymarket stop is considerably more controversial for several reasons, one of which is the question of whether a station there would serve as an end-of-the-line train depot.

Haymarket planning commissioner Bob Weir, a former town councilor who opposes the Haymarket station but favors a Gainesville one, said on Sunday that a Haymarket station is "going to be a question of prioritization" for the NVTA.

Another broader goal for VRE is to install two platforms at every station, like they have in Alexandria and Franconia (Springfield).

"We're able to operate at those stations on both sides of that track," said Roeber. "We can easily move passengers from one track to the other."

Roeber mentioned that even in the City of Manassas, which is completely developed around the train station, "there's enough right-of-way where you can make additional improvements if needed."

As for whether more money coming in from the state will mean lower ticket fares, don't count on that any time soon.

Those fares are determined by a separate operating budget, not the capital improvement budget used for physically building stations and trains.

"The two aren't tied to each other," said Roeber.

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