Rail Transit an Important Part of the Future - TransDominion Express


Rail Transit an Important Part of the Future

The News & Advance
Published: April 2, 2009

For the most part, members of the General Assembly look out for the interests of their districts while at the same time keeping an eye out for the overall best interests of the state. It’s a big job.

Give state Sen. Mark Obenshain an “F” for failing to keep the best interests of the state in mind as he pursues what he considers the best interests of his district. The failure came recently when the Harrisonburg Republican lashed out at the Virginia Department of Transportation for approving $25.2 million for a pilot project to add daily rail passenger service from Lynchburg and Richmond to Washington, D.C., for three years.

The lawmaker is irked that the transportation department wants to close rest stops on Interstate 81 and cut back on snow and ice removal on rural roads in his district to save money. He has started an online public forum to point out wasteful spending by VDOT. At the same time, he has called the new rail passenger service that will be provided by Amtrak beginning in October a “pet project” that reveals misplaced priorities in the state’s transportation funding.

What Obenshain fails to understand is that the new rail passenger service is an important part of the future of mass transportation in Virginia. That failure deepens when you consider the cost of mass transportation versus the cost of building new roads. It costs $20 million to design and build one mile of four-lane highway. For slightly more than that, thousands of people can be transported from Lynchburg and Richmond to Washington for three years.

The new train service, which was approved by the Commonwealth Transportation Board in February, will include an additional Amtrak train between the two cities with stops at localities along the U.S. 29 corridor.

Supporters of the rail service, including Del. Shannon Valentine, D-Lynchburg, have said it is the first piece of a statewide rail system that would be vital to the economies of Central and Southwest Virginia.

Obenshain has turned a blind eye to the potential the rail service holds for a great portion of the state. Instead, he’s written on his forum designed to expose waste at VDOT, “At a time when VDOT says it can’t afford to plow, repair or maintain roads, this is an outrage.”

A better case for outrage could be made by the close-minded approach he has taken to the possibilities of mass transportation for Virginia’s future. Valentine outlined those possibilities when she said that economic challenges should move the state to try out “transportation solutions outside our normal perspective. It gives Virginians an option of knowing there are other solutions to our transportation troubles,” she said.

The Lynchburg lawmaker added that the region needs to tie in to a passenger rail system for economic reasons. “There’s a whole new highway of rail being developed in this country and we need to be in a position to contribute to the 21st-century economy. We need to make sure that we’re connected to this vital economic system that’s being developed.”

Rex Hammond, president of the Lynchburg Regional Chamber of Commerce and a longtime supporter of passenger rail service for this part of the state, said he hopes that Obenshain “looks at the needs of other parts of the state and realizes that our needs are as great.”

Looking at what could be the big picture for transportation in Virginia, Hammond said, “It’s essential that we diversify our transportation portfolio in Virginia. Passenger rail is an excellent way to move forward. It’s not the solution to Virginia’s transportation problem, but it’s part of the solution.”

He’s exactly right. Mass transportation is not a frivolous service. There’s nothing “wasteful” about it, as the Harrisonburg lawmaker would know if he took off his blinders and looked at the best interests of the state’s transportation future.


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