VRE backs Virginia’s major rail service expansion goals

Virginia Railway Express first activated PTC on a Fredericksburg Line train with riders on Feb. 14. Rollout on the Manassas Line began April 1. (WTOP/Max Smith )

The Virginia Railway Express Operations Board is endorsing sweeping changes that would add many more commuter trains, allow the first VRE weekend service and significantly expand Amtrak service south of D.C. to Richmond.

As part of budget approvals Friday, the board supported plans to designate a majority of VRE’s $15 million in annual dedicated funding, established by the 2018 Metro funding bill, as VRE’s share of support for a new Long Bridge between Arlington and D.C. over the next decade.

VRE could provide more than $100 million toward the project starting around 2022, using bonds backed by the dedicated funding or direct cash contributions.

“There is nothing more transformative to VRE’s future than the Long Bridge,” said Arlington County Board member and VRE Operations Board Chair Katie Cristol.

It means more chances for commuters to avoid Interstate 95, 395 and 66 traffic.

“It’s the opportunity for people to get to their jobs in a reliable way with minimal stress,” Cristol said.

The plans call for an additional round trip each day on both of VRE’s lines starting next year, as long as agreements can be reached with Norfolk Southern for the Manassas Line addition.

Additional trains would be phased in through 2030, and VRE can now also run weekend service for the first time.

“It will allow us to deliver more reliability and on-time performance to our current riders, and just dramatically expand who can ride the VRE and to what end,” Cristol said.

The new bridge accounts for about half of the money from a $3.7 billion plan announced Thursday to overhaul rail service over the next decade, with separate passenger and freight tracks from L’Enfant Plaza in D.C. to downtown Richmond.

The rest of the cost is expected to be covered by Amtrak, Virginia state funds and regional funding, such as I-66 toll revenue. Virginia also hopes for federal grants.

Regional rider, commuter and business groups were thrilled by the announcement.

Virginia is also purchasing additional right of way from CSX that could allow for even more service expansion in the future.

Today, most VRE riders live in Fairfax or Prince William counties. More than a third live in Spotsylvania or Stafford counties.

“The opportunity for bidirectional service is pretty extraordinary,” Cristol said.

In the nearer-term, additional VRE service could offset some of the traffic Arlington County is concerned about around Amazon’s new headquarters.

“One of the things that has been of greatest concern to Arlingtonians about the impacts of more jobs coming to Arlington is, ‘Are more cars coming to Arlington?'” Cristol said. “So, to be able to say that there is a one-seat ride from as far south as Fredericksburg, Spotsylvania, as far west as Manassas … why wouldn’t you take advantage of that?”

Apart from Thursday’s announcement, VRE is moving forward with plans for a newly expanded Crystal City station. The work on that station, expected to take place over the next four years or so, will be coordinated closely with work on additional tracks in that area leading up to the Potomac River.

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