Squabble resolved blocking Northern Virginia $75m high-speed rail stimulus project

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Photo - Virginia Railway Express (Examiner file photo)
Virginia Railway Express (Examiner file photo)
Local,Virginia,Transportation,Kytja Weir

A years-long squabble that was holding up nearly $75 million in federal stimulus funds has been resolved, just weeks before a deadline that would cost Northern Virginia the money and scuttle 11 miles of high-speed rail near Quantico.

The Federal Railroad Administration plans to release $74.8 million this week to build a third track from Arkendale in Stafford County to Powell's Creek in Prince William County, according to the office of Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va.

The segment eventually will be part of a longer high-speed rail line, but also will relieve a key chokepoint for Amtrak, freight trains and Virginia Railway Express. VRE commuter trains won't travel any faster than their current top speeds of 79 mph because of the closeness of their stops, but Amtrak trains will be able to travel much faster down the new track. That means fewer slowdowns from trains getting backed up, but also more capacity.

"We won't get into each other's way," said VRE spokesman Mark Roeber.

Officials have forecasted that the project overall will reduce passenger trip time by four minutes and increase on-time performance by 2 percent along the line, while reducing the number of auto trips by nearly 146,000 along the Interstate 95 corridor.

The stimulus award was given in January 2010 but got bogged down in a stalemate among Virginia, freight company CSX and the Federal Railroad Administration.

The fight hinged on what on-time performance standards the trains on the line should face and when they should take effect: when the segment is finished or when the entire track from Fredericksburg to Washington is complete.

But the fight cut close to the wire. If it hadn't been resolved by Sept. 30, the money would have been lost, returned to the pool of stimulus funds.

Now, the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, instead of VRE, is managing the project, after brokering the deal between federal officials and CSX, Roeber said.

Ironically, the project initially won stimulus funds because it was "shovel ready," with all engineering and design work complete.

It is not clear when work will begin, but it needs to finish by September 2017.

kweir@washingtonexaminer.com

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