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High Speed Derailed

With federal funding less than expected, plans for high-speed rail in Richmond must wait.

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Last summer, Richmond's buttoned-down business community set aside its typical aversion to federal budget deficits. Luminaries such as U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor, banker and grocer Jim Ukrop and investment banker S. Buford Scott pushed hard for two grants totaling more than $1.8 billion from the Obama administration to speed greatly rail service to Washington.

So much for solidarity. Their efforts won only $75 million for Virginia because much of the $8 billion available went to such projects in Florida, Illinois and California.

In this round of funding, Virginia gets an 11-mile-long third track, so that north-south passenger trains can avoid a CSX bottleneck in Stafford and Prince William counties.

“We would have rather received a larger grant,” says Virginia Pickett, spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, who applied for the grants.

Where does the state go from here? Pickett says that more federal money is available. Obama put $1 billion in for so-called high-speed rail in his proposed budget. And the Federal Railroad Administration has $2.5 billion available. “We're waiting to see how to apply for it,” she says.

Also the Commonwealth Transportation Board, which decides major funding issues, will choose Feb. 17 whether to push for a Richmond-to-Hampton Roads passenger line through the Peninsula to Newport News or along a Norfolk Southern line parallel to U.S. Route 460. Capital costs are estimated between $330 million and $844.2 million.

To get true high-speed rail faster than 110 miles per hour from Petersburg to Washington, however, costs could exceed $4 billion or $5 billion. Although the initial award was a splash of cold water, Pickett says rail proponents are undeterred.

“States put together $102 billion worth of rail proposals for only $8 billion available,” she says. “There's a lot of interest out there.”

Daniel L. Plaugher, executive director of Virginians for High Speed Rail, also remains optimistic about future federal disbursements. “The areas that got lots of funding in the first round such as California and Florida have a lot to chew on,” he says, “so Virginia will be very competitive in the next round of funding.”

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