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BY SCOTT SHENK
In its final meeting of 2012, the Virginia Railway Express operations board addressed the next budget proposal and looked back on a year of mixed results.
Board Chairman Wally Covington started with good news, saying VRE set records for on-time performance and total ridership figures.
He said 2012 was the first year the Fredericksburg and Manassas lines' on-time performance topped 95 percent.
Also, average daily ridership in fiscal year 2012 topped 19,000, Covington said, the highest ever for the commuter rail system.
Total ridership for the year also set a record.
VRE handled a total of 4.772 million rider trips in budget year 2012, which ended June 30. That's a 6 percent increase over the previous year's ridership of 4.512 million.
In fiscal 2010, the commuter rail service reported 4.033 million rider trips and the year before that 3.857 million.
GOOD AND BAD NEWS
The first five months of fiscal year 2013--July through October--haven't been so good, though, as fare revenue was down more than 9 percent compared to the previous year, according to CEO Doug Allen's monthly report.
November was better, though. Allen reported that fare revenue last month was nearly $45,000 more than expected.
However, he added, there has been a dip in riders on Mondays and Fridays recently. Fridays saw a significant drop in November, with 1,282 fewer riders each Friday compared to last November.
Allen suggested that teleworking commuters might be the cause of that drop.
Both Allen and Covington also noted during the meeting that along with the good, VRE had some tough times in 2012.
There were two suicides, in October and November, in which pedestrians stepped in front of VRE trains.
The commuter rail system also was pressured by state auditors this year, after an FBI investigation revealed that a former facilities manager had been taking kickbacks from subcontractors.
Spokesman Mark Roeber said after the meeting that the audits "came out very favorable to us."
On another positive note, the board announced Friday that Gov. Bob McDonnell's proposed budget includes millions in track access fees for VRE, something officials had been highly concerned might be lost. Roeber said the exact figures haven't been hammered out, but they expect to get the $9.6 million to pay CSX for the use of the tracks in the coming year.
"So that's good news," Allen said during the meeting.
The board also addressed the fiscal year 2014 budget proposal Friday, voting to send it to the commissions that oversee VRE.
If approved by the commissions, the total 2013-14 budget would increase almost 5 percent to $92.99 million. The current budget is $88.7 million.
Expected fare revenues would bring in an additional $2.1 million in FY 2014.
But that increased fare revenue would come from more riders, primarily in the Fredericksburg area.
That good news/bad news scenario has the board concerned about crowding, especially since it looks like there will not be a new train in time to handle an expected spike in riders after the new Spotsylvania station opens. The plans for a new train have been pushed back a year, to 2015.
It looks like fare increases will be used to help VRE expand so it can handle the expected jump in riders.
There was a 4 percent increase this summer, and the 2013-14 budget proposal includes another 4 percent bump. The long-range plan calls for two more such increases by 2017.
Paul Milde, one of Stafford's representatives on the VRE board, said he's concerned about fare increases, but understands the need to plan for the expected growth in passengers.
Fellow board members John Cook of Fairfax and Chris Zimmerman of Arlington said VRE needs to stay ahead of the expected growth.
"Once we get to the point that people are standing and being turned away," said Zimmerman, "we're in trouble."
Scott Shenk: 540/374-5436