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Friendly or forceful? VRE discusses how to get Richmond to care about its funding needs

Amtrak launched the “state” trains back in 2009 when Tim Kaine was Virginia Governor.

Called the Northeast Regional, Virginia officials took on a portion of the cost to run passenger service between the cities Richmond and Lynchburg, New York City and Boston. The Lynchburg route was expanded in October to serve Roanoke.

Today, ridership on those two Amtrak routes in Virginia continue to rise.

Here are some stats from the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation:

• The Lynchburg route (now the Roanoke route after its extension to the Star City on October 31, 2017) also runs a daily round trip to Washington, D.C. It served 189,811 riders in FFY 2017, increasing by 2.7 percent.

• The Newport News Route, which has two daily round trips to Washington, D.C., served 331,308 riders, increasing by 0.5 percent.

• The Richmond route also features two daily state-supported round trips to Washington, D.C. Ridership on these trains remained relatively steady by serving 174,935 riders.

This comes as good news at Northern Virginia’s commuter railroad — Virginia Railway Express — looks to make new friends this year in a changing General Assembly. A wave Democratic candidates earlier this month washed out longtime Republican delegates in the House.

Railroad officials are putting the finishing touches on the agency’s legislative agenda, which outlines top priorities for the upcoming legislative session in Richmond in January.

They include “fixing” the gas tax by setting a floor that would guarantee a certain level of funding from the state no matter how low gas prices dip. Transit agencies like VRE are reliant on regional gas taxes collected at the pump in Northern Virginia for a large amount of their funding.

VRE is not only looking for the $45 million it needs annually to keep the lights on, it also wants $65 million to improve the system, to expand it, and to attract new riders as part of its 2040 improvement plan.

“When it comes to highways, the state has done all it can to expand capacity,” said VRE chief Doug Allen. “So the Amtrak ridership numbers demonstrate the need for passenger rail service.”

And then there’s the question of how forcefull VRE should be when it comes to pushing Richmond legislators for more funding. Some of what the transit agency is calling for could require a tax increase, on top of a 2.3% hike the local governments like Prince William County will pay to VRE this coming year.

“I think we have a solid agenda and we’ll be lucky to get half of it passed,” said John Cook, a Fairfax County Supervisor who sits on the VRE Operations Board. “Let’s wait six months, see what the climate is like, and then review it again.”

Others like Fredericksburg City Councilman Matt Kelly and Spotsylvania County Board of Supervisor member Gary Skinner, who both sit on the VRE board, are less patient.

“We just cut a ribbon for a two-mile extension of the [E-ZPass] Express Lanes in Stafford County, but it still took me two hours to get home from my meeting in Alexandria. The problem is not fixed,” said Kelly.

Small improvements to the area’s highways like this one are not enough, and the region is losing out on economic development opportunities because companies fear the region’s traffic woes, he added.

In the past, VRE Board members said they’ve been content with playing politics and simply taking the amount of funding they can get from Richmond, and then blame state legislators for not providing enough to improve VRE, so the service can take more cars off area roads.

“We need to stop raising the flag of success over every little [road improvment] and tell the state that this isn’t enough,” said Kelly.

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