Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed a $3.7 billion deal Tuesday with Amtrak and CSX Transportation that officials say will break loose a major East Coast chokepoint and allow for a dramatic expansion of passenger and commuter rail.
“We are proud to say, on behalf of this administration, help is here,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said.
Buttigieg attended Tuesday's signing ceremony at the Alexandria Amtrak station and said it is a preview of what can be accomplished if Congress passes a massive infrastructure bill that President Joe Biden is expected to unveil Wednesday.
“While colossal, this is just the beginning of what's possible for infrastructure in this country,” Buttigieg said after the deal was signed.
The broad outline of Tuesday's agreement was announced in December 2019 but took more than a year to formalize with multiple agencies and approvals involved.
A major piece of the puzzle is construction of a new bridge over the Potomac River for passenger rail.
Currently passenger and freight rail share the century-old bridge, creating a point of gridlock for Eastern rail traffic. Under the plan, passenger and freight rail will be separated.
The project will allow Amtrak to double service between Richmond and the nation's capital. And the state's commuter rail service, Virginia Railway Express, expects a 60 percent increase in service, including weekend and late-night service for the first time.
“It will be easier to hop an Amtrak to New York for the weekend; it will be easier to commute to work using VRE,” Northam said.
Northam said the rail project is one-third the cost of adding lanes to Interstate 95 in Virginia and just as effective at getting people where they need to go.
He cited the importance of offering off-peak commuter rail service to essential employees who work odd hours.
“We know that many essential jobs are not 9 to 5, Monday through Friday. The 21st century needs a train schedule to match,” he said.
In all, Virginia is acquiring 384 miles of CSX right-of-way, and 223 miles of track, primarily on the I-95, I-64 and I-85 corridors.
In addition to northern and central Virginia passenger and commuter rail, the project will increase Amtrak service to Newport News and Norfolk. It includes right-of-way acquisition from Petersburg to Ridgeway, North Carolina, and from Doswell to Clifton Forge. Officials said the Petersburg acquisition could facilitate expansion of high-speed rail service, while the Clifton Forge acquisition can be used to expand east-west passenger service.
Of the $3.7 billion, Virginia is paying $525 million to CSX Transportation for acquisition of right-of-way and infrastructure. The remaining $3.2 billion will be used to fund infrastructure projects to expand rail capacity between Richmond and Washington.
If all goes according to plan, construction could start in 2025 and the new bridge would be in place in 2030.
The multibillion investment in passenger and commuter rail comes at a time when VRE ridership is down 90 percent because of the pandemic. After Tuesday's ceremony, Northam said he's confident that demand for commuter rail will rebound as the pandemic wanes.
“Absolutely. If you look at the history of this country, I mean, people are big fans, generally speaking, of rail. You’re taking for granted – not everyone has access to automobiles,” Northam said.