The weekday commute is easier for hundreds of Virginia Railway Express riders, thanks to the opening of the Spotsylvania County’s Crossroads Station off U.S. 17 bright and early last Monday morning.
It’s the first extension of the commuter rail service since VRE opened the Fredericksburg and Manassas lines in 1992.
And judging from the opening-week ridership, it’s clearly an overdue improvement. An average of 550 people boarded northbound VRE trains at the sparkling new $15 million Spotsylvania station each day. Commuter vehicles filled about one-third of the 1,500-space parking lot each day last week, says Bryan Jungwirth, VRE spokesman.
On Monday morning, time-crunched riders shared stories about how the new station will save them time, money and the hassle of driving to stations in Fredericksburg and Stafford County. One Spotsylvania resident said her trip to board the train now takes 10 minutes from her Lee’s Park home. Another rider said traveling to the new station will save him $60 to $80 a month in gas costs compared with other VRE stations.
Fortunately, the new southern terminus of the line will benefit riders in other localities, too. The Spotsylvania station should ease the parking crunch around the station in downtown Fredericksburg and free up spaces at the Leeland Station in southern Stafford.
Though it took 23 years, this is the vision local and state officials had for the VRE when they started the regional commuter rail system. Because it is regional, each local governing body along the CSX line has to vote to support the system. The Spotsylvania Board of Supervisors held off joining for two decades. Becoming a permanent part of the system hinged on two key supporters on the board winning re-election in 2009, which they were. Supervisor Gary Skinner, who still serves on the board and the VRE Operations Board, spoke glowingly about the team effort it took to get Spotsylvania back the system.
Funding VRE was a huge hurdle. Locally, financial support comes through an additional 2.1 percent gas tax at the pumps. Many local officials were loathe to impose the tax initially, but it has paid off, giving area commuters an alternative to congested Interstate 95.
In fact, VRE officials say the 5,000 riders a day on the train equal a lane of traffic on the interstate. Just think about adding that many more cars into the interstate mix here.
Gas tax revenue that is not used for VRE operations has helped make local road improvements, pay for bus service and provide other transportation improvements.
Along with the new station, a third set of tracks is being built to Fredericksburg. That $26 million project will help to clear the way for another morning northbound train that will leave Spotsylvania after the 5:07 a.m. train and before the 5:32 a.m. It will allow VRE to add a mid-afternoon southbound train filling the gap between the 12:55 p.m. train from Union Station and the next one at 3:35 p.m., Jungwirth says. Rail commuters have long asked for another afternoon train.
Last Monday’s ribbon-cutting event drew a host of local, state and congressional officials. So many that John Cook, a Fairfax County supervisor and chairman of the VRE Operations Board joked that there’s “nothing like success to bring out a whole bunch of politicians.”
It took decades of hard work, money and cooperation among elected officials of all stripes to get VRE rolling to Spotsylvania. We hope it will lead to other regional efforts to provide services to residents and promote the area as a job center and a great place to see historic sites.