Richmond's rail dilemma
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.
| June 22, 2010; 5:00 PM ET
Categories: Va. Politics, Virginia, development, economy, energy, environment, traffic, transportation
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