By Michael Martz, Richmond Times-Dispatch
Virginia has won a $165 million federal grant to unlock what it calls the “Atlantic Gateway” to speed passenger rail, freight trains and highway vehicles through one of the most congested corridors on the East Coast.
The FASTLANE grant will combine with $565 million in private investment by Transurban and CSX Transportation, as well as $710 million in state transportation funds, to carry out some of the biggest projects on the state’s transportation wish list in a package worth $1.4 billion.
Those improvements include:
- a new Interstate 95 bridge crossing of the Rappahannock River;
- extension of Interstate 395 express lanes about 7 miles north to the Potomac River and I-95 express lanes about 10 miles south toward Fredericksburg;
- construction of 14 miles of new track along the CSX rail corridor crossing the Potomac River, as well as deed to the state 60 miles of abandoned railroad track from Petersburg to North Carolina for high-speed passenger rail service;
- expansion of mass transit options, including 1,000 new parking spaces for commuters along I-95 and I-395 in Northern Virginia.
“It’s spectacular!” said House Speaker William J. Howell, R-Stafford, who worked with the administration of Gov. Terry McAuliffe, local and regional officials, and industry to make it happen.
McAuliffe touted an estimated $500 million in planned rail improvements — from CSX and the state six-year plan — as “the largest rail investment in the history of the commonwealth,” with benefits in all modes of transportation.
“Transportation leaders came to the table with one clear goal: improve travel in the most heavily traveled corridor in the Southeast by investing in road and rail improvements to move people and commerce efficiently, not only through Virginia, but also from Florida to New York,” the governor said in a statement announcing the grant under the federal FAST Act signed in December.
Separately, the government awarded a $90 million FASTLANE grant for a $250 million project to rebuild the approaches to Arlington Memorial Bridge, a critical commuter artery built 84 years ago between Virginia and the District of Columbia.
“This significant federal investment will go a long way toward ensuring that Memorial Bridge remains open, which is welcome news for the region’s commuters,” said a joint statement by Virginia Sens. Mark R. Warner and Timothy M. Kaine, members of the state’s congressional delegation from Northern Virginia, and D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton.
Virginia Secretary of Transportation Aubrey L. Layne Jr. said the Atlantic Gateway will boost the Port of Virginia, where the state has committed $350 million to increase capacity at Norfolk International Terminal, by expanding rail service in Virginia at Long Bridge on the Potomac and accommodating trains double-stacked with shipping containers on CSX routes in and out of D.C.
The project also will help expand Amtrak and commuter rail service across the Potomac and give Virginia control of the former CSX S-Line abandoned more than 30 years ago from Petersburg through Southside to the North Carolina line, which the governor called “key for future Southeast High Speed Rail.”
“This is a home run,” Layne said. “This is how we believe federal, private and state money should be used — they should be leveraging one another.”
The key was negotiations during the past two years with CSX, based in Jacksonville, Fla., and Transurban, based in Australia, to invest in critical rail and highway improvements, respectively. “It is a good example of public-private partnership,” Howell said.
Howell’s House district stands in the middle of the gateway, with the fast-growing Fredericksburg suburbs lying just south of where the I-95 toll express lanes end now and standing to gain from expanding the Virginia Railway Express commuter service to and from Washington.
“It should be a tremendous help up here,” Howell said. “From a highway standpoint, commuter rail … higher speed rail, I’m very pleased.”
Transurban has been the state’s partner in building the 29-mile express lane network on I-95 and Interstate 495 in Northern Virginia.
The federal grant will allow construction of 17 miles of express lanes to begin next year, McAuliffe said.
Transit improvements include expansion of commuter and truck parking along the I-95 corridor; expanded bus and Virginia Railway Express service; construction of pavement to eventually allow use of driverless cars; and improved technology to respond to traffic incidents and provide travel information to drivers.
Layne said tolls collected on the express lanes “will remain in the corridor” to pay for future transit and other measures to reduce congestion.
McAuliffe said the Atlantic Gateway will build on a major agreement reached in the General Assembly this year to relieve congestion on Interstate 66 within the Capital Beltway, while expanding the heavily traveled commuter road by 22 miles outside of I-495 in Northern Virginia.
“It is really a game changer,” the governor said, claiming that his administration “has delivered on promises to ‘unlock Northern Virginia.’ ”