Word on the Street: Rail revival

As the South continues to grow, the challenges of moving people and goods around the region mount. One solution that rarely gets the attention or funding it deserves is rail.

With the ability to move both freight and passengers, trains present a crucial opportunity to get road-clogging traffic off of highways and streets, while also reducing greenhouse gases and other pollutants. The statistics are clear:

  • Passenger trains use half as much energy, per passenger, as cars
  • A freight train can move a ton of cargo more than three times farther on a gallon of gas than a truck, and
  • Moving a ton of freight a mile by rail instead of by truck can produce two-thirds fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

Despite these advantages, finding funding for rail projects has been a perennial problem. Virginia’s recent commitment to rail, however, provides a model many in the southeast are watching closely. Comprehensive state transportation legislation adopted in 2013 included a dedicated funding mechanism for passenger rail. This new fund is unique in the region and is projected to provide about $55 million each year, making it the largest dedicated state fund for intercity rail in the country. This fund is in addition to an existing dedicated fund in Virginia for freight rail.

A major passenger rail project to be funded in Virginia will extend the successful route between Washington D.C., Charlottesville, and Lynchburg to Roanoke by 2017, bringing passenger rail back to that city for the first time in almost 40 years. Improvements that will increase the speed and on-time performance of the popular Richmond-to-D.C. route are also in the state transportation plan, as is additional rail service between Richmond and Norfolk.

Virginians are responding positively to the improvements that already have been made. Ridership on state-supported passenger rail services in the state rose 118% in the past seven years.

The recent gains in Virginia are in stark comparison to other Southeastern states, where rail often remains an afterthought. In North Carolina, recent legislative changes have severely limited rail’s opportunity to compete for state transportation funds. In the state’s recently-published 10 year transportation plan, passenger rail was forced to share just 4 percent of the transportation budget with all other non-highway modes, including freight rail, aviation, ferries, bicycle and pedestrian projects, and public transit.  

Continued pursuit of a rail revival is essential to our region’s successful growth, promoting stronger communities, helping to curb sprawl, enhancing economic opportunities, and reducing pollution.

SELC’s Land and Community Program tackles the growth challenges and decisions shaping the Southeast. This series of posts runs every other week and highlights the broader issues driving this work—transportation and land use developments, alternatives, and progress in our region. Click the links below to read previous Word on the Street posts.

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