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Getting on track
Railroads can be the answer to the gridlock in Virginia and elsewhere.

Date published: 9/5/2004

Rail is a responsible transport alternative

THE MORE PEOPLE and freight we can get off the roads and on the rails, the better. But like all good ideas, from getting more exercise to improving education, it's easier said than done.

Last winter, state Sen. John Edwards--the Roanoke Democrat, not the vice-presidential candidate--sponsored a bill in the General Assembly to create a Rail Transportation Development Authority in Virginia. It would identify where new lines are needed as well as old ones in need of repair. It was amended to prevent it from raising funds unless a comprehensive statewide plan for rail projects becomes law by July 1, 2007.

What happened to the bill, in retrospect, seems fairly predictable. It sailed through Mr. Edwards' own chamber, the Senate. But in the House, it started out in the Transportation Committee, then was shuffled off to the Appropriations Committee, where it died.

The moral of the story: Improving transportation implies the spending of money even if you just want to study it. Suddenly, Mr. Edwards' bill was more about money than transportation.

Last week, the Commission on Rail Enhancement for the 21st Century, established last spring by Gov. Warner, met with rail executives to learn how public and private iron-horse interests might work together. According to Mr. Edwards, the commission will help serve the purpose of his ill-fated legislation: to study rail transportation.

If the commission manages to increase public and private interest in the need to improve rail infrastructure, it will be a success. One needn't be a transportation whiz to grasp that roads such as Interstates 95 and 81 are overburdened, and that simply adding lane after lane to busy highways to accommodate the increasing load of people and freight isn't the answer.

Rail transportation is the alternative, and rail executives and shippers have said they'll cooperate if an improved system can provide timely scheduling and delivery of goods. Road-building contractors, says Mr. Edwards, don't care if they are building roadways or railroads as long as they are building something. Trucking companies would welcome shorter runs to regional train depots that would allow their drivers to spend less time on the road far from home.

Laying extra track along existing rights of way, increasing bridge heights to allow double stacking of containers, and improving communications systems are all part of enhancing rail transportation and are less complicated, intrusive, and (generally) expensive than finding new places to put new roads and building them.

Without fresh, forward thinking, highway gridlock is inevitable. Enhancing rail transportation sounds awfully good.