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Posted at 5:00 PM ET, 06/22/2010

Richmond's rail dilemma

By Peter Galuszka

As in many cities, some Richmonders are caught up in the new urbanist wave, dreaming of living without cars close to downtown offices, restaurants and intra-city transportation.

A big part of that involves the ornate, Renaissance Revival Main Street Station completed in 1901 in the heart of Richmond's downtown. Regional planners, developers and the city's business elite want the station to be a focus of the back-to-downtown move and the platform for higher-speed passenger trains to whisk them to Washington in a mere 90 minutes without car congestion on Interstate 95.

Unfortunately, they had their balloon pricked recently when Thelma Drake, a former Virginia Beach congresswoman who is now secretary of the Department of Rail and Public Transportation, told them that a new Amtrak train from Norfolk to Petersburg and Washington won't be stopping at Main Street Station when it starts service in three years. Instead, it will stop at Staples Mill Road station, a boxy Amtrak outpost in the Henrico County suburbs that handles most of Richmond's passenger rail traffic.

Why? The only CSX line from Petersburg that has appropriate signal and safety gear for passenger use runs to Staples Mill Road.

It will cost nearly $600 million to upgrade a small spur line that can access Main Street Station from the south, the state says. A group of regional planners and business officials believes that the upgrade can be done for $122 million. No matter. Either sum will be hard to find in a state that is $20 billion short on needed transportation projects.

Another nettlesome issue is that Main Street Station, which handles several Amtrak trains to Washington from Newport News each week, now has only about 2,000 riders a month, or about 10 times less than Staples Mill Road. This raises questions about whether spending hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade a line for so few riders is worth it.

It's really too bad. I am an ardent rail fan of the type known as a "foamer" and would love to see fast and easy downtown rail to D.C. But like many visions, new urbanist or whatever, the hard reality of funding can really dampen things. One wonders how many times this dilemma is replicated nationwide.

Peter Galuszka blogs at Bacon's Rebellion. The Local Blog Network is a group of bloggers from around the D.C. region who have agreed to make regular contributions to All Opinions Are Local.

By Peter Galuszka  | June 22, 2010; 5:00 PM ET
Categories:  Va. Politics, Virginia, development, economy, energy, environment, traffic, transportation  
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Staples Mill gets more riders because more trains stop there! And because it was the only available option for most of the past 30 years.

The main advantage Amtrak has over driving or flying is that it provides a direct seat to downtown, where you can get around without a car. By ignoring that advantage, Amtrak is setting itself up for long term failure. If you can't use it to get downtown, there's simply much less reason to ride Amtrak.

That having been said, it's reasonable to open the service sooner with what you can put on the ground. Better to open the line in 3 years than wait for everything to be perfect.

But a decade from now, trains had better be stopping at Main Street Station.

Posted by: Dan Malouff | June 23, 2010 10:25 AM | Report abuse

I really hope you are right. But you fail to address the nut of Richmond's dilemma. Where will they get the hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade the rail line so Main Street Service can be expanded?
The problem with this issue is that everyone blue skies rail but they don't address the very hard questions about funding.
If you have ideas on financing, please share them.

Peter Galuszka

Posted by: pgaluszka | June 24, 2010 3:25 PM | Report abuse

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