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NEW TRACK FUNDED

January 29, 2010 12:36 am

By KELLY HANNON

Federal stimulus money will fund a punctual ride home on Amtrak and Virginia Railway Express trains in the Fredericksburg area, and create 281 construction jobs over two years.

Yesterday, Virginia learned it will receive $75 million to build a third railroad track over 11.4 miles between Powell's Creek in Prince William County and Arkendale in Stafford County. When finished, it will be the third stretch of third track between Stafford and the Potomac River.

"To go to three tracks there, that is going to really reduce the congestion and keep people on time," said Thelma Drake, a former Virginia congresswoman, newly appointed executive director of the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation.

Amtrak and VRE passengers traveling between Fredericksburg and Washington will probably see the most immediate benefit from the project, which is intended to eventually smooth the way for high-speed passenger rail between Washington and Richmond.

Adding a third track is similar to adding a third lane to a highway.

"By having a third track, it really substantially increases the capacity, so you can get a train on the third track and go around people," said Dale Zehner, VRE's chief executive officer.

A third track already exists from the Potomac River to Alexandria, and the state will finish adding another section of third track from Alexandria to Franconia-Springfield later this year.

Fredericksburg Line VRE trains are already running close to their scheduled times, however.

Through Jan. 26, Fredericksburg Line trains were on time 91 percent of the time this month.

Paul Milde, a Stafford supervisor and VRE Operations Board chair, said he rarely hears complaints about on-time performance now that it consistently falls in the 90 percent range.

He said the $75 million grant will prepare the tracks for high-speed rail in the future. "I'm of course very excited that the federal government saw this as a priority," Milde said.

A construction start date was not available. Drake said the project will create 281 construction jobs, and will be finished by 2012.

Yesterday's award comes from $8 billion set aside for high-speed rail projects in the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. States applied for the rail money over the past year, submitting $102 billion in requests. President Obama announced the recipients yesterday at a town hall meeting in Tampa, Fla.

California got the largest award: $2.3 billion to start work on high-speed rail between several major cities. Florida will receive $1.2 billion for high-speed rail between Tampa and Orlando, and Illinois and Missouri were awarded $1.1 billion to start high-speed rail between Chicago, St. Louis, and Kansas City, Mo.

North Carolina received $520 million for high-speed rail between Raleigh and Charlotte, and $25 million to upgrade the tracks between Raleigh and Richmond.

While the $75 million award will improve travel for Fredericksburg-area residents, there was disappointment Virginia did not receive more funding for the Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor, which envisions rapid train service between Charlotte and Washington.

Virginia did not receive $1.8 billion it requested to upgrade the railroad tracks between Petersburg and Washington, D.C. Those upgrades were necessary to achieve the state's goal of running passenger trains at 90 mph between Richmond and Washington by 2017.

While high-speed rail will not come to Richmond as soon as hoped, Drake said the $75 million investment is an encouraging sign.

"The federal government wouldn't be spending $75 million in your area if they weren't committed to the project," Drake said.

Drake didn't know if the status of the two projects made a difference. The Arkendale to Powell's Creek project was ready for construction, while the $1.8 billion application involved more preliminary work.

"I don't know if they stepped back and said we only want to take the tier that is shovel-ready or if they did a mixing," she said.

Daniel Plaugher, executive director of Virginians for High Speed Rail, said any disappointment over the overlooked $1.8 billion application was outweighed by the positive start with the $75 million.

The third track should improve passenger train on-time performance by 2 percent, Plaugher said, and money headed to North Carolina will eventually help the entire rail corridor.

"It's definitely a first step toward high-speed rail between Washington, Richmond, Raleigh and points south," Plaugher said.

Nationwide, it was an important day for rail advocates, Plaugher said.

"This $8 billion is the largest investment in rail since President Lincoln built the transcontinental railroad," Plaugher said. "It's really been that long since the U.S. has invested in it."

Kelly Hannon: 540/374-5436
Email: khannon@freelancestar.com




BY THE NUMBERS

$8 billion

amount set aside for high-speed rail projects in federal stimulus money

$75 million

amount Virginia will receive from federal stimulus money

281

number of construction jobs that will be created over two years

11.4 miles

the length of the track to be built between Prince William and Stafford counties




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