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Posted at 9:00 AM ET, 12/ 8/2010

Rail Advisory Board could be axed

By Jennifer Buske

An advisory board that has advocated for rail projects in Virginia is in jeopardy as the governor looks to make government more efficient.

Formed about six years ago under Gov. Mark Warner, the Rail Advisory Board brings members of Virginia Railway Express, CSX, Norfolk Southern, the railroad unions and other organizations together to support rail projects and improve freight and passenger rail in the commonwealth.

Governor Robert F. McDonnell's Commission on Government Reform and Restructuring, however, recommended in its report released last week that the rail board be eliminated. It is one of 133 recommendations the commission made to McDonnell, who is now reviewing all the items with the goal of streamlining government and cutting costs.

"I think a major part of our transportation future in this country and in the Commonwealth of Virginia is expansion of rail opportunities," said Sharon Bulova, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors and VRE's representative on the Rail Advisory Board. "Without a Rail Advisory Board, we lose a very valuable forum for rail issues to be vetted and for rail opportunities to receive advocacy.

Bulova, a founding member of the rail board, said the board has been crucial in strengthening the relationships between VRE and the two freight companies, which own the lines the commuter-rail system operates on. Prior to 2004, VRE struggled with its on-time performance as passenger rail tried to operate between freight trains, she said. That, however, started to change thanks to the rail board.

In an Oct. 20 letter to the commission, VRE Board Chairman Paul Milde also emphasized the Rail Advisory Board's role in securing funds for numerous transportation projects. The board's recommendations have helped allocate nearly $125 million in capital funding for rail projects in Virginia, Milde said in his letter.

Del. G Glenn Oder (R-Newport News), who was a committee chair on the governor's reform commission, said the commission estimated that eliminating the rail board could save $10,000 a year, mainly in the staff time it takes to prepare for the board's quarterly meetings. Oder said the advisory board was created at a time when the commonwealth lacked a lot of communication regarding rail issues. That, he said, has since been addressed and there are other avenues that stimulate rail discussions.

CSX spokesman Robert Sullivan said the rail board has been a "valuable asset" in elevating the discussion of rail issues. Regardless of the outcome of the commission's recommendations, CSX supports the continued existence of a venue of some form to advance rail developments."

NS officials said they have not taken a position on the commission's recommendation.

Bulova said she also questions the commission's recommendation considering the state's efforts to advance rail transportation. The state recently received roughly $45 million in federal funds to pave the way for future high-speed rail. State officials have also stressed the importance of exploring all mass transit options, including rail, to alleviate overcrowding on Virginia roadways.

"The recommendation seems to counter what the administration is pursing," Bulova said. "The potential for expansion of rail in Virginia is enormous and without the Rail Advisory Board, you don't have a place to have those discussions. We don't cost much but I think the board makes a big difference."

By Jennifer Buske  | December 8, 2010; 9:00 AM ET
Categories:  Passenger Rail, Virginia Railway Express  
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If it's so valuable, let CSX fund it.

Posted by: getjiggly1 | December 8, 2010 4:47 PM | Report abuse

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