First of two parts.

Major improvements to rail transportation now being finalized will prove a boon to Virginia commerce.

The rail improvements will affect mostly Northern Virginia and Richmond in the immediate term, although at least one initiative could benefit the Charlottesville area in the long term.

Meanwhile, a second set of mass transportation plans also in the works could affect Charlottesville much sooner. (More on that tomorrow.)

By one estimate, even just a single rail improvement in Northern Virginia would boost commuter activity by $2 billion. That added income would produce tax revenue for the state as a whole.

The impact is due to a plan to build a new bridge across the Potomac River, with tracks dedicated to passenger and commuter rail.

Today’s structure has been in operation since 1909, although it was substantially modified during World War II. Still, the bridge cannot handle the amount of traffic currently crossing it. Bottlenecks slow freight, passenger and commuter trains to a crawl. The new bridge would help serve all these interests — and accommodate a bike trail as well.

Indeed, the initiative could not occur without cooperation from freight rail lines, which own the tracks on which passenger trains now run. CSX and the Buckingham Branch Line are involved in the plans for improvements.

Other rail improvements are envisioned, as well as the acquisition of trackage and rights-of-way. Improvements include:

» Doubling the number of Virginia Amtrak trains;

» Providing nearly hourly Amtrak service between Richmond and Washington;

» Increasing Virginia Railway Express service, including adding weekend service;

» Increasing Amtrak service to Newport News;

» Acquiring the abandoned S-Line running from Petersburg into North Carolina, a move that eventually would facilitate high-speed rail;

» Preserving the Buckingham Line’s freight corridor between Doswell and Clifton Forge for future east-west passenger service. Virginia would purchase the line, CvilleRail and Piedmont Rail Coalition Chair Meredith Richards told NBC 29, which would allow the state to offer east-west passenger rail service. Rail connection between Charlottesville and Richmond, and from there on to Norfolk, is a lack greatly lamented by local passengers.

The commonwealth and the freight lines are still working out details, but the plan has advanced sufficiently for Gov. Ralph Northam’s office to have announced it last month. The agreements are expected to be executed in the latter half of this year. The projects are forecast to be completed within a decade.

The CSX-Virginia agreement would cost the commonwealth $3.7 billion.

However, that’s a bargain if the alternative is to keep widening roads. One projection suggests that adding a lane to Interstate 95 in each direction for a distance of 50 miles would cost $12.5 billion — more than three times the price of these several rail improvements, which would benefit many sections of the state.

The planned improvements are an exciting step for Virginia, one that ultimately will benefit freight lines, rail passengers and the state’s business reputation as well. We look forward to seeing these benefits move from plans to materialization.

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