An economic enabler
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.