House Bill In Process Would ‘Transform’ State Transportation

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A House committee decided Wednesday to temporarily postpone action on a comprehensive transportation bill that, in part, establishes a governing body to purchase and manage railways, something supporters said the state has gone too long without.

The House Finance Committee, citing time constraints and the bill’s complexity, will act Monday on House Bill 1414, introduced by House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax.

The bill also amends several laws related to funds, safety programs and revenue sources.

The Virginia Passenger Rail Authority would be led by a board of directors consisting of 11 members, nine of which would be appointed by the governor, and would have the power to purchase and manage railways. Eight of the members will have voting power and would represent localities across the state. The authority would be tasked to promote, sustain and expand Virginia’s passenger and commuter rail service and to increase ridership.

Danny Plaugher, executive director of Virginians for High Speed Rail, said his organization has supported the creation of a rail authority for decades. The nonprofit advocates for frequent and fast rail service throughout the state and along the East Coast.

“It creates an entity that can own real infrastructure,” Plaugher said. “The state has not been in the business of owning rail since the state sold the Richmond to D.C. corridor in the early ’90s.”

Virginia announced plans late last year to purchase rail for passenger use from CSX.

Plaugher said that rail service in Virginia has increased by about 30% in the past decade. He noted that while Virginia has been expanding train service, trains in Virginia typically run north and south, not east and west.

He noted that the state’s four-year gubernatorial terms can limit certain initiatives and priorities can change.

“One of the benefits of a rail authority really is that you can have that long term sustaining vision for the expansion of passenger rail that supersedes the changing of any gubernatorial administration,” Plaugher said.

The authority would have the power to build and maintain rail facilities, borrow money and issue bonds to finance rail facilities. It also would make rules and regulations pertaining to railways. Local authorities would be subordinate to the rail authority.

The legislation includes the establishment of a transit incentive program, which would promote transit in areas with a population over 200,000 and “reduce barriers to transit use for low-income individuals.”

The rail authority is part of a larger transportation legislation package announced Monday by Gov. Ralph Northam and legislative leaders. Together with Senate Bill 890, HB 1414 aims to increase driver safety and modernize Virginia’s transportation system.

“Virginians should be able to get to work or to school safely, without sitting in traffic,” Northam said in a statement. “This bold package will reduce congestion, transform transit and rail service, and support economic growth across Virginia.”

Both bills would reduce vehicle registration fees to $13 for private passenger cars weighing 4,000 pounds or less and $18 for private passenger cars weighing more than 4,000 pounds. It also would allocate funding for interstates and streets to meet safety targets and raise the gas tax by 4 cents each year for the next three years. The gas tax will increase from 16 cents to 20 cents in July and will reach 28 cents by 2023. After that, the gas tax will be adjusted annually based on the United States Average Consumer Price Index.

“In November, Virginians overwhelmingly demanded we take swift, decisive action to move our Commonwealth forward,” Filler-Corn said in a statement provided to Capital News Service. “I am excited to work with the Governor and my colleagues in the General Assembly to pass this legislation that will make our roads safer, commutes shorter and transform passenger and commuter rail in Virginia.”

Plaugher sees the potential establishment of the Virginia Passenger Rail Authority as a step in the right direction for Virginia transportation.

“The Passenger Rail Authority is really positioning Virginia to take hold of their transportation destiny,” Plaugher said.

After a quick overview from the state Secretary of Transportation, Shannon Valentine, the chair moved to act on the bill Monday.

“I would invite the public to also please communicate with us any questions that you might have,” said House Finance Committee Chair Vivian Watts, D-Fairfax, who advised members to thoroughly read the bill. “Thank you very much for the overview of a very large, very complex, good look to the future.”

Jimmy O’Keefe / Capital News Service