Virginia may have fallen short in its bid for a hefty slice of the $10 billion federal high-speed rail funding pie, but a separate “regular rail” improvement project appears to be gathering steam.


Last week, Virginia Railway Express authorized a $2.7 million environmental study for a proposed 11-mile extension of the popular commuter rail system in Prince William County.

Funded in part by the state Department of Rail and Public Transportation and the Norfolk Southern, which currently owns and operates the project’s existing freight-only corridor, the two-phase study will first examine extension options, possible station locations, environmental impacts, and the all-important cost to bring VRE to Gainesville and Haymarket, two once-rural crossroads that have become commercial hubs following nearly two decades of non-stop suburbanization. 

Based on these results, VRE will then determine whether to proceed with a full environmental assessment and preliminary engineering for adding another track and as many as three new stations in the corridor. 

Should the project move forward to construction, estimated to cost approximately $244 million,
the extension would become part of VRE’s Manassas Line, which carried more than 945,000 passengers between Manassas and downtown Washington, D.C., in 2009a 7-percent increase over the previous year. Combined with VRE’s Fredericksburg-to-DC, the 18-year-old commuter rail system served a total of 1.91 million passengers last year.

The VRE project would offer some consolation to Virginia’s passenger rail proponents, who saw their dream of being among the nation’s pioneering high-speed rail corridors dashed (or, at least, significantly delayed) in January when the state received $75 million in ARRA funding, only four percent of the $1.8 billion that had been requested to develop a 120-mile segment of the Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor between Washington and Petersburg.


Though small, the $75 million will be put to work right away in the cash-starved state, helping to alleviate a longstanding freight and passenger rail bottleneck in Northern Virginia with 11 miles of new track.


State transportation officials and political leaders have also vowed to press Virginia’s case for high-speed rail funding to the Federal Railroad Administration and other federal agencies. In addition to the main Southeast Corridor, the Commonwealth Transportation Board recently  endorsed a proposed high-speed rail link between Richmond with Hampton Roads.


Given the state’s dire budget situation, however, it’s doubtful that anything short of a major infusion of federal funds will move either plan off the drawing board in the near future.