By Danny Plaugher
With the final phase of the draft of the Washington to Richmond High Speed Rail study set to be released this fall, I want to outline why it’s so important to our region.
First and foremost, it is our only real option for improving our region’s connectivity to the rest of Virginia and the East Coast.
Roadway congestion in our region has increased 113 percent since 1990 and is now costing our commuters $729 in wasted gas, lost time, and increased car maintenance annually. Over that same period the number of vehicle miles traveled in our region has increased by 89 percent — and 56 percent of that growth is on our highway network.
While our region isn’t close to having to deal with the transportation issues impacting Northern Virginia or Hampton Roads, the metrics aren’t getting any better.
Second, the Richmond airport is doing a great job growing ridership. However, the reality is that there aren’t a plethora of new airlines knocking at our door to serve our region with additional flights.
Since 1990, the number of flights serving RIC has declined 42 percent, leading to an increase of passengers per flight of 250 percent. The era of extra leg room is over, but hopefully so is the era of airline consolidation and mergers.
Which brings me to my final point: Central Virginia needs better connections to the Northeast, Charlotte, Atlanta, and Hampton Roads. The best opportunity to improve those connections is through the expansion of intercity and high-speed passenger rail.
Last year, Virginia’s Amtrak trains offered service to 80 percent of our population, 85 percent of our jobs, and 88 percent of our college students. Our trains handled 1.6 million trips, which removed 186 million potential passenger miles from our roads, reduced fuel consumption by 6.1 million gallons, and eliminated the burning of 120 million pounds of carbon dioxide.
Our region is home to the largest train station by passenger volume in the South, served by three of the top six best-performing regional routes in Amtrak’s entire network — and it boasts the second-fastest-growing station in the state.
Over the past decade, ridership at our stations has increased 68 percent, while the amount of service has increased just 12 percent. That is a great foundation on which to build improved passenger rail to serve RVA.
Passenger rail is great at connecting destinations that are 100 to 500 miles apart. But it has to be reliable, car competitive, safe, and frequent — which is why completing the Washington to Richmond High Speed Rail study is so vital to our region.
Imagine the difference between driving to Washington, D.C., on Route 1 versus I-95. The vehicle you’re driving is the same, but the quality of the roadway changes. More capacity, greater fluidity, increased safety standards, and faster speeds. Driving I-95 to D.C. is also 68 percent faster than taking Route 1.
Simply stated, the primary objective of the D.C. to RVA high-speed rail study is to look at the rail equivalent of turning a Route 1 into an interstate-quality rail line that is able to reduce travel times, improve safety, increase frequency, and improve reliability.
The good news is that we already have the trains! The same seat that you sit down in when you get on at Main Street Station travels 125 miles per hour north of Washington, and the engine that pulls you from RVA to D.C. can reach speeds of 110 mph. So it comes down to what infrastructure improvements are necessary to accomplish our objectives.
The benefits are enormous. High-speed rail for our region will result in an 85 percent increase in passenger train service, a 20 percent increase in reliability, and a 25 percent reduction in travel times.
If our state already had high-speed rail, Virginians who traveled by train last year would have saved 793,900 hours of travel time. That’s visiting grandparents who get to spend more time with their grandchildren, young entrepreneurs who get more time to grow their business, soldiers who get back from meetings at the Pentagon in time to watch their child’s soccer game, or the family who gets more time to enjoy their vacation.
High-speed rail is about more than just faster choo-choos. It’s about giving our region the connections necessary to continue to grow and be economically competitive.
There will always be naysayers but major regions do major things, so we need to make sure we don’t get left at the station where the future will pass us by.