By: Michael Martz; Richmond Times-Dispatch
Williams Mullen CEO Thomas R. Frantz looks forward to the day when he can ride The Tide from his law office in Virginia Beach to a new rail station at Norfolk’s Harbor Park to catch a train to Main Street Station in Richmond.
From there, Frantz would have a short walk to Williams Mullen’s headquarters on South 10th Street, as well as the apartment he shares with his daughter and son-in-law in Shockoe Bottom.
The problem is that a planned rail line from Norfolk to the Richmond area wouldn’t come near Main Street Station. Instead, it would bypass the city and end at the Amtrak station on Staples Mill Road in Henrico County — and eventually a proposed new station in western Henrico on Parham Road.
“It needs to go to Main Street Station because I’ve got to get to my office,” said Frantz, a member of the board of directors of Virginians for High Speed Rail, after the group’s annual meeting here Friday.
His concern was echoed by Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, who lives in Richmond’s Church Hill neighborhood and sees a vibrant Main Street Station as a catalyst for economic growth in the city.
“What is it going to take to make that happen, and where are we going to do it?” Schwartz asked state and federal officials at the annual meeting.
While Norfolk is celebrating the public embrace of The Tide, a light-rail system that opened in the city in August, Richmond officials are looking for a way to solve an expensive obstacle to high-speed rail service to the capital city’s reviving downtown.
The pending rail service on existing lines between Richmond and Norfolk, slated to begin in December, would connect to a much bigger long-term plan for a Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor to link Virginia’s capital with the nation’s capital in Washington and North Carolina’s capital in Raleigh.
“How can you have a capital city to capital city plan that doesn’t include the capital city?” asked Suzette P. Denslow, chief of staff to Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones, after the meeting at the Norfolk Waterside Marriott.
The answer comes down to dollars — big dollars — according to Thelma D. Drake, a former Virginia congresswoman and delegate who now serves as director of the state Department of Rail and Public Transportation.
Drake estimates the cost of all rail improvements in the Richmond area at almost $600 million, primarily to bypass CSX Corp.’s Acca Yard on the northwest side of the city. The rail yard is a massive speed bump for passenger rail service to Main Street Station, adding an estimated 40 minutes in train travel.
“The state doesn’t have that kind of money. … It’s very unfortunate,” Drake told an audience of more than 250 people, including a sizable contingent of business and political leaders from Richmond.
Denslow estimates the cost of bringing high-speed rail, or what passes for it in the United States, to Main Street Station at closer to $300 million. The rest of the big price tag includes work throughout the region, including $32 million to build a new train station on Parham Road.
There is a potential compromise, suggested James E. Ukrop, a retired banking and grocery magnate in Richmond who said the bypass could be used as an interim solution to the passenger rail challenge.
“This is a great temporary solution,” said Ukrop, who serves on the rail group’s board. “It can’t be permanent.”
But while rail and other forms of mass transit remain an urgent goal for state and local officials, the cost remains a formidable challenge, even for expansion of the popular Tide, the state’s first light-rail service.
It took Norfolk about 20 years and more than $315 million — including $114 million in state funds — to finish the 7.4-mile light-rail line, with 11 stations from Eastern Virginia Medical School to the Virginia Beach line at Newtown Road.
Virginia Beach will hold an advisory voter referendum in November on the possibility of extending the line, but the early estimates suggest a cost of about $254 million to extend the service 3.8 miles to the Virginia Beach Town Center and $800 million to span the full 12 miles to the oceanfront.
Rail advocates say the service is worth the cost. Norfolk has had almost double the riders expected — about 4,900 a day on weekdays.
“The ridership has blown all of us away,” said William E. Harrell, president and CEO of Hampton Roads Transit and former chief administrative officer in Richmond.
A group of rail boosters from Richmond traveled to the Newtown Road station by private bus and then rode The Tide to the meeting downtown.
“Who wouldn’t want this?” asked former Richmond City Council President William J. Pantele, a Richmond lawyer who is president of Virginians for High Speed Rail. “It’s good for the public. It’s good for the economy. It’s good for the environment.”
Drake said the state has made great progress in establishing new rail service, including a profitable line between Lynchburg and Washington and daily trains between Newport News and Richmond.
But, she said, “we have no pot of money for rail in Virginia.”
Gov. Bob McDonnell and the General Assembly provided money in the next two-year budget for Virginia to maintain the regional rail service it has as the federal government prepares to shift responsibility for those train lines to the state next year with a reduced subsidy.
“There’s a lot of stuff going on, but we still don’t have near enough money dedicated to this thing to open it up,” said state Sen. John Watkins, R-Powhatan, who pushed successfully for an additional $28 million in state funds for rail in the next budget.
Federal transit officials say local governments also will have to step up with funding.
“There’s not enough money at the federal or state levels to fund these projects,” said Brigid Hynes-Cherin, regional administrator at the Federal Transit Administration. “We’ll have to get funding at the local level as well.”
That won’t be easy in a time of strained local budgets and looming cutbacks in federal spending in a state that depends heavily on it, Harrell said. “You have to recognize that everything can’t be done at once.”
Some local government officials say they often opt to build roads rather than transit because of the operating costs for rail, bus and other alternatives to highways, but Hynes-Cherin said the public doesn’t know the true comparison.
“Nobody thinks there are any costs to operating these highways — it’s just done,” she said, “but it’s in all of your budgets.”