Should the Pandemic Cause Virginia to Revisit Its $3.7 Billion Rail Plan?


Should the Pandemic Cause Virginia to Revisit Its $3.7 Billion Rail Plan?

Virginia needs to prioritize its resources to fund the transportation projects that offer commuters and taxpayers the biggest bang for their buck.

In December 2019, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced the $3.7 billion Transforming Rail in Virginia initiative. The agreement with CSX doubles the amount of state-supported Amtrak service and Virginia Railway Express (VRE) Fredericksburg commuter rail service in exchange for Virginia acquiring 225 miles of track in the I-64, I-85, and I-95 corridors. The state plans to build 37 miles of track in the I-95 corridor, including a new two-track Long Bridge across the Potomac River connecting Arlington with Washington, D.C. 

VRE will operate one new round trip between Washington, D.C., and Norfolk, and a second new trip on the Fredericksburg line. The improvements are expected to cost $3.7 billion, with one-third of the costs covered by federal funding, one-third by the state, and one-third of the money coming from local taxpayers. 

Partnerships between the state and private industry are generally a good thing. Clearly, the aging Long Bridge, which serves both freight and passenger traffic, needs to be replaced with a wider span.  However, this rail initiative leads to a number of questions and concerns.

First, are the rail improvements being funded by gas tax revenue? Spending such revenue on rail would violate the users-pay/users-benefit principle (gas tax revenue dedicated to roadways) that has been the bedrock of federal and state transportation policy for generations. Virginia has a complicated funding system that includes using sales tax revenue for transportation. Virginia might be funding the rail improvements out of sales tax revenue. We simply do not know at this time. 

The bigger question is whether the rail improvements will improve mobility in the corridor? Commuters who don’t live or work near a rail corridor are unlikely to use the service and commuters are unlikely to drive more than about five miles to a commuter rail station. The main CSX line is located mostly east of I-95, with the Buckingham Branch north of I-66 to Clifton Forge and the S-Line extending south along I-85 into North Carolina. This leaves a lot of regional commuters who will continue to drive instead of switching to commuter rail.

Many of the commuters in the corridor have either an origin or destination outside of the rail corridor. Some commute from the Virginia suburbs to the Maryland suburbs and find making multiple transfers on a trip to be a hassle that also extends travel times too much. Similarly, some commuters find the operating frequency of some transit systems insufficient to satisfy their needs. Others work in suburban job centers that aren’t served by the rail plan. For example, Fairfax County is home to 10 companies in the Fortune 500, but none of those companies are based along the rail line. 

Additionally, much of the traffic using these corridors (particularly I-95) is freight traffic. And this type of freight carried is more appropriate for trucks than trains. Many of these trucks have destinations outside of a fixed rail route and make deliveries that are last-mile in nature.

It’s also worth noting that many of the drivers of automobiles on the region’s busy interstates are passing through the area and could not switch their trips to rail or benefit from the rail service. Interstate highways are national by definition and the I-95 corridor traverses 14 different states. 

Finally, the rail plans don’t take into account how the COVID-19 pandemic has altered the way Americans travel and may do so permanently. Public transit ridership has understandably decreased by more than 50 percent during the coronavirus pandemic. Services catering to transit choice riders (those with access to an automobile who ride transit by choice) have declined the most as many people seek to avoid large crowds and shared spaces during the pandemic.

Virginia is using estimates from its 2014 travel patterns to guide 2021 investment decisions. But a lot has changed since 2014. It’s far too early to know the long-term changes to travel and commuting patterns we’ll see when we’ve emerged from the pandemic. But many experts predict a permanent increase in the number of people working from and for mass transit ridership to continue to struggle in the short-to-medium-term.  

Aside from the needed replacement of the obsolete Long Bridge, Virginia and other states should stay away from most rail megaprojects while we see what commuting and travel patterns look like after the pandemic.

For now, the state’s limited transportation resources could be better spent on improving the state’s deficient interstate highways, which have already seen traffic rebound more than other modes of transportation and are most likely to rebound to pre-pandemic levels.

Long-term, most of Virginia’s interstates are nearing their 50-year design lives and will need to be rebuilt from the roadbed up. This will cost many billions of dollars and it is past time for the state to start planning for these reconstructions. As the state rebuilds these highways, it could also widen the most-congested sections.  I-95 and I-495 have some of the region’s worst congestion, but all Virginia interstates have experienced increased congestion and degraded safety for at least part of their routing. 

Given the high costs of these roadway improvements and state fiscal uncertainty, one potential sustainable funding source is tolling the lanes being added. Even tolling some of the lanes, as Virginia is doing on I-66 and I-95 in Northern Virginia and I-64 in Hampton Roads, can help pay for the needed widening. Variable-priced tolling, which rises and falls to ensure free-flowing traffic conditions in the lanes, can also help manage demand on the corridor.  Innovative financing options such as public-private partnerships can also help stretch resources further and reduce the need for taxpayer funding.  

Improving interstates right now would have several advantages over improving Virginia’s train service. First, interstates are part of a larger highway network that does not require people to shift modes as part of a trip. Second, interstates serve long-distance and truck freight traffic, something the rail expansion cannot do. Most importantly, as the region grows and the percentage of its jobs in downtown Washington, D.C., decreases, roadway improvements make it easier to for more people to work in and travel to various suburban areas. 

Given the potentially long-term travel changes resulting from COVID-19 in the coming years, Virginia needs to question if spending billions on rail projects that may not end up suiting the region’s future workers is the way to go. The state should reevaluate its costly rail plans.