Several speakers touched on key aspects of the area transportation network during a Fredericksburg Regional Chamber of Commerce gathering Wednesday morning.
As usual, Interstate 95 dominated the conversation, but the speakers—including Rep. Rob Wittman, R–1st—also touched on funding issues and the importance trains can play in helping fix congestion problems throughout the corridor.
Wittman and other speakers touted the nearly $1 billion in work along the region’s I–95 corridor, saying such projects as the I–95 express lanes and Rappahannock River crossings will go a long way to help ease congestion issues.
But Wittman told the crowd of about 50 that he believes a federal infrastructure bill needs to be passed to help get new projects done and to cover maintenance.
“The debate is how do we pay for that,” he said.
The congressman said the federal gas tax is one facet of transportation funding, but with fuel efficiency improving he thinks that system needs to be “modernized.”
Wittman touted public-private projects as one way to get transportation improvements, highlighting the electronically tolled express lanes as one example.
He floated the idea of a pay-per-mile system as an option to fund transportation work and said he would be open to considering congestion pricing, which charges drivers depending on how much congestion is on the road, similar to the express lanes.
Wittman also said Virginia should get every penny it gives to the federal government instead of the current 98-cent return for each dollar invested.
The congressman added that expanding the broadband network also could help by allowing people to work from home or closer to home, which would take commuters off the roads.
One attendee asked Wittman if elected officials in Washington can get anything done regarding transportation.
“There’s always hope,” Wittman said.
But he lamented the fact that there is “political division” and the closer the 2020 presidential election gets, the less likely it is anything will get done on an infrastructure bill.
Wittman also touted the importance the rail system can play in alleviating road congestion. Fellow speaker Doug Allen, the CEO of Virginia Railway Express, echoed those sentiments.
Both men said the most important rail project is known as the Long Bridge, which would expand the only railroad bridge over the Potomac River between Virginia and Washington.
Wittman said rail traffic that uses the bridge takes 5 million cars off the roads annually, but added that the chokepoint there is a problem that makes the rails less efficient. But the $1.6-billion project lacks funding.
Wittman said there is a push to get the federal government to pay for the work, as well as possibly Amazon, which plans to open a headquarters in Northern Virginia.
Allen said expanding Long Bridge not only would fix rail congestion, but could allow VRE to run trains into Maryland and allow that state’s MARC trains to cross over into Virginia.
He also said VRE is looking to expand its service, but that it is unlikely the commuter rail service will run more trains unless the Long Bridge project gets done.
However, he said VRE is expanding in other ways.
Allen told the crowd that VRE is taking a two-tier approach to increasing service under the existing format of 32 trains that run on the Fredericksburg and Manassas lines.
One approach, he said, is to run longer trains, which will increase capacity by 20 percent. That work is underway.
The other opportunity to expand would be the addition of a third track through the corridor.
There is a project in the works—the Southeast High Speed Rail proposal. The project would add rail capacity along a wide network, including a segment between Washington and Richmond.
But the project hasn’t been approved yet. And the money will have to be found to pay for it.
Allen sounded optimistic.
“Eventually, the money will be found,” he said.