Will VRE Capacity Grow – or Be Frozen?

gambleThe Virginia Railway Express (VRE), Northern Virginia’s commuter rail system, just lost its gamble.

The proposed construction of 11 miles of new track and three new stations at Innovation, Gainesville, and Haymarket is not cost effective. This week, local officials are expected to reject the expansion plans because they require too much money for too few benefits.

Local officials could go one step further and freeze any plans for adding capacity to VRE.

The study assumed three new trains would be added in the morning and evening rush hours to carry more commuters.

If the Board of County Supervisors in Prince William approves on December 13 the resolution proposed by staff, VRE’s ability to add those three new trains could be killed along with the proposed construction to Haymarket.

Ugh. VRE bet the house on the Gainesville-Haymarket Extension Study, but now could lose the entire farm.

Phase I of the study has revealed that constructing new track/stations would cost up to $660 million, and would not be competitive for Federal grants. The state, Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA), and local governments would have to dig deep, really deep into their pockets for one-time capital costs exceeding half-a-billion dollars.

Not likely.

Even worse, the study revealed that if the extension were built, annual operating costs would skyrocket and require more local subsidies every year. Local jurisdictions pay for 50% of the costs for each train trip; fares purchased by passengers covers only half the cost of each ride.

Finding more money for VRE operations, every year, would require local officials to cut funding for something else, every year.

Not likely, especially as Metrorail’s funding crisis squeezes NVTA jurisdictions such as Fairfax County..

If the benefits were worth the cost, then increased VRE subsidies make sense. After all, commuter rail reduces traffic congestion at rush hour. As I-66 tolls go into place, more commuters will consider VRE as an alternative route to work.

However, building new track to Haymarket would add only 555 new round-trip passengers each day. Compared to just adding three new trains on the existing track, the Haymarket extension would cost $9 million more in operating costs.

That’s over $16,000 per person, each year. Double ugh.

The surprise result in the Gainesville-Haymarket Extension Study was that one option was feasible. Moving the current Broad Run station north to Godwin Road, and expanding the railyard and maintenance facilities now at Broad Run, would allow VRE to run three additional trains at morning and evening rush hour. The “Broad Run Relocated” option, with additional trains and railyard expansion, was far more cost-effective than any option involving construction of new track and new stations west of Route 28.

However, the high costs of the extension proposal led to county staff proposing a “none of the above” alternative. Staff’s resolution for the December 13 meeting of the Board of County Supervisors is to do nothing, and simply terminate any study.

The staff’s resolution could block future VRE growth. Without expansion of the Broad Run railyard, there would not be space to park and service additional trains. VRE might add cars to current trains to mitigate current crowding, but capacity would be capped.

Not coincidentally, killing VRE expansion would provide the county’s transportation department with more funds for new road construction. The “build more roads, forget about transit” mentality is always a factor in Prince William.

The Board of County Supervisors could recommend that the Gainesville-Haymarket Extension Study proceed to Phase II, and scope Phase II to consider only the Broad Run Relocated option. Or it could terminate VRE expansion plans with extreme prejudice…

proposed expansion of Broad Run railyard

1 comment so far


    Why is light rail being left out as a transit alternative when justifying expenses by trips removed from I-66 and I-395. it is very inexpensive and takes up 22′ to 40′ of right of way. The trail along 66 could be extended as well for bicyclists.

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