Decision is near on a VRE expansion plan

WASHINGTON — Regional leaders are close to a decision on expanding Virginia Railway Express service along the Interstate 66 corridor.

The Prince William County Board of Supervisors is weighing the potential economic development impact of an extension to Gainesville or Haymarket. Specifically, they’re considering whether it’s worth spending more per new rider than an alternative plan to expand the station, rail yard and parking at the Broad Run station next to Manassas Regional Airport.

The decision was delayed in December.

Prince William County Supervisor and Northern Virginia Transportation Authority Chairman Martin Nohe hopes the board will make its choice as part of a “regional decision” before the next VRE Board meeting in March. He has been meeting with other local leaders about the issue.

“From a strictly Prince William County perspective, it makes most sense for us to go out to Gainesville rather than staying in place at Broad Run,” he said, “but we need to get buy-in from our regional partners like Fairfax County and the City of Manassas — but perhaps more importantly, buy-in from the state.”

Officials have to make sure that investments are cost-effective, Nohe added, and that they relieve congestion and help with attaining other long-range goals for land use and economic development.

A key factor in an initial VRE study’s recommendation for the Broad Run expansion and station location shift was a finding that new track to Gainesvile and Haymarket would not qualify for a key source of federal transportation funds.

The state is also facing a transit capital funding cliff, with bond capacity set to run out soon.

“I’m still optimistic that we’re going to get the extension out to Gainesville, but I think now we are in a better place to understand what the challenges are which need to be overcome in order to get that extension,” Nohe said.

Some Fairfax County leaders have advocated quicker advancement of the Broad Run expansion to deal with increasing demand for VRE trains and to keep capital costs down in times of tight budgets.

“We know what work is cut out for us. Now, Prince William County has to define how we’re going to overcome those challenges and persuade the region that this is the right decision,” Nohe said.

Once that decision is made and that planning study can be completed, he said, that project probably becomes one of the top priorities for the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority.

“It’s going to need a lot of investment, but we know that it’ll have a huge positive impact on getting cars off of I-66 and [Virginia State] Route 28,” Nohe said.

The second phase of the study will include preliminary engineering and environmental findings on all five short-listed alternatives, which would lead to an official selection of a locally preferred alternative under federal environmental rules.

In addition to the Broad Run station expansion, the other options include running the Manassas Line out of a new Innovation Park Station, adding the Innovation station as well as a Gainesville station east of University Boulevard; adding those two stations and another Gainesville station west of Lee Highway (U.S. 29); or adding a station in Haymarket in addition to the Innovation and Gainesville stations.

Each of the proposals includes either a new or expanded rail yard.

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