Richmond Times-Dispatch

An economic enabler

- — Chris Gentilviso

Roughly 150miles separate Richmond’s Main Street Station from Baltimore’s Penn Station. Yet the path to get to and from anywhere within those points via rail is less than ideal.

Despite having Amtrak and Virginia Railway Express (VRE) service, there is a need to improve train travel in the commonweal­th — for passenger and commercial reasons. On Thursday, the Greater Washington Partnershi­p (GWP) — a regional alliance of business leaders — released its Capital Region Rail Vision, a path toward improved regional mobility over the next 25 years.

Connectivi­ty creates opportunit­y in the commonweal­th. A unified, regional rail system with Maryland and Washington, D.C., is an economic enabler worth pursuing.

Per the GWP, the Capital Region stretching from Richmond to Baltimore is the third largest regional economy in the U.S. and the seventh largest in the world. Compared to other parts of the U.S., the Capital Region has a sizable commuter rail foundation in place, with more than 335 miles of tracks. Before COVID-19, more than 54,000 daily riders used the VRE and the Maryland Area Regional Commuter (MARC) systems.

However, the issue is coordinati­on. VRE, MARC and Amtrak tend to “operate, plan and invest independen­t of each other, limiting the rail network’s collective service,” a correspond­ing GWP fact sheet argued.

The end result is a web of stressed commuters who might lose money as they pay two monthly passes, or lose energy as they rush across platforms to make transfers, or lose time as scheduling delays on one line lead to missed connection­s on another.

“This fragmentat­ion makes rail travel more complicate­d, more time-consuming and less able to meet the region’s travel patterns — limiting the region’s economic productivi­ty and creating opportunit­y cost to residents, neighborho­ods and employers,” the GWP report added.

The growth of our 21st-century economy hinges on breaking down these silos, and the Capital Region Rail Vision has some proposals that would do so for Virginia. These include bidirectio­nal VRE service instead of the current one-way options toward Washington in the morning and back home at night; expanded frequency of trains during peak and off-peak times, with hourly or better service; and an integrated system of fare policies, pass structures and overall operations on rail lines throughout the Capital Region.

But for the commonweal­th, these end goals can’t happen without better infrastruc­ture. That starts with the Long Bridge— a longstandi­ng impediment to passenger and commercial rail progress.

This past December, Gov. Ralph Northam announced a landmark $ 3.7 billion agreement between the commonweal­th and freight operator CSX to build a new, state-owned passenger and commuter rail bridge across the Potomac River. The current Long Bridge structure — which is 116 years old — is owned by CSX, juggles all train traffic between Virginia and Washington, D.C., and reaches 98% capacity during peak hours. Freight from the Port of Virginia regularly has to compete with commuter trips, which stymies efficiency for both entities.

Hours after the release of the Thursday GWP report, the House of Representa­tives passed legislatio­n that would help ease such congestion. The Long Bridge Act of 2020 would allow the National Park Service to shift federal land to Virginia and Washington, D.C., to aid in the constructi­on of the new span. The bill was introduced by U.S. Reps. Rob Wittman, R-1st, and Don Beyer, D-8th, in July and companion legislatio­n sitting in the Senate is carried by Virginia Democrats Mark Warner and Tim Kaine.

In the governor’s December 2019 release, The Stephen F. Fuller Institute at George Mason University projected a new Long Bridge would pumpan additional $2 billion into the commonweal­th each year. COVID-19 might have halted our daily commuting patterns — and the rail momentum— for the time being.

But a new bridge and expanded vision for regional mobility affords hope for a better Virginia economy going forward, and that’s even more of a post-pandemic imperative. We support this pursuit.

 ?? SUZANNE CARR ROSSI/THE FREE LANCE-STAR ?? A conductor manned an early-morning VRE train as it departed the Fredericks­burg station and headed towardWash­ington, D.C.
SUZANNE CARR ROSSI/THE FREE LANCE-STAR A conductor manned an early-morning VRE train as it departed the Fredericks­burg station and headed towardWash­ington, D.C.
 ?? BOB BROWN/ TIMES-DISPATCH ?? In May 2019, a CSX locomotive headed east near 17th and East Cary streets over Shockoe Bottomin Richmond.
BOB BROWN/ TIMES-DISPATCH In May 2019, a CSX locomotive headed east near 17th and East Cary streets over Shockoe Bottomin Richmond.

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