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VARP testifies for Rail Authority Bill

From VARP’s On Track newsletter, spring 2009

By VARP board member and president Mike Testerman

On February 4, 2009, VARP president Michael Testerman testified before the Virginia Senate’s Finance Committee in favor of Sen. Edwards’ Rail Development Authority bill, SB 864. Speaking against the bill was Kevin Page, for the Kaine administration, and Bruce Wingo, for Norfolk Southern. The committee failed to report it by a 4-10 vote. In favor were Wampler, Hanger, Watkins, and Whipple. Against were Colgan, Stosch, Houck, Howell, Stolle, Quayle, Norment, Marsh, Lucas, and Reynolds. Saslaw and Miller abstained.

Mike Testerman also testified before the Commonwealth Transportation Board on February 5.

The big debate was whether the bill would burden the Commonwealth with bond indebtedness. Edwards assured the committee that it wouldn’t. Kevin Page said that the Rail Advisory Board is working out well and that the Commonwealth Transportation Board should have ultimate authority over rail spending. Bruce Wingo said that a Rail Development Authority would emphasize passenger rail at the expense of the taxpaying freight railroads that would have only two representatives on the Authority board. Twice, Sen. Edwards mentioned that Rail Advisory Board members have expressed the need for the board to evolve into a Rail Development Authority.

Mike Testerman’s testimony follows:

Good evening, Secretary Homer and CTB members. I am Michael Testerman and I am president of the Virginia Association of Railway Patrons, a nonprofit, all-volunteer organization representing current and would-be users of rail transportation.

Last week I attended a hearing of the U.S. House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Rail, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials. Rail industry leaders, researchers, and advocates made up two panels covering the topic “Freight and Passenger Rail: Present and Future Roles, Performance, Benefits, and Needs.”

The general consensus of testimony was that the backbone surface transportation systems in the United States—Interstate Highways and mainline railroads—are each operating at capacity. Moving forward into the 21st century, elected officials must redirect scarce public resources to obtain the most throughput capacity for each dollar. Rail and transit’s roles are to provide this new capacity, while contributing significantly to the reduction of foreign oil dependency and stimulating a sustainable economy that protects our environment and improves our standard of living.

As we move forward, our transportation policies must provide investments that are not incremental, but transformational.

One of the best summaries of this new approach, offering Virginia as an example, was given by Amtrak President Joe Boardman, whom I will excerpt:

Our industry (freight and passenger) is greener than our competitors; we have a smaller carbon footprint. But we could make a major leap forward by extending electrification. Amtrak operates the only intercity electrified corridor in the nation from Boston to Washington, DC through New York City. That corridor should be extended so that it operates from Miami to Maine for a greener and healthier future for the East Coast of the United States. Electrification should, however, not stop there; we should endeavor to connect our rail network to the electric grid all over our nation. This is not a new idea, but it is one that would go a very long way toward securing our energy future and improving our environment. Railroads do not need to depend on liquid energy when the electric option exists and is available. This cannot be done, however, without a major policy decision by Congress. I would settle for help extending our electrified territory to Richmond within the next five years, and making plans to extend that on to Atlanta or beyond in the next ten years …

Programs on this scale are being undertaken elsewhere—China, for instance—where they are regarded as a vital component of future economic development. I think it’s time for us to look for the investment opportunity that will do for this century what the canals and the transcontinental railroads did for the nineteenth century, and the highways did for the twentieth.

It is also noteworthy that many of the panelists brought up the example of shifting transportation investments from roads to rail, citing the I-81 corridor. All four I-81 corridor congressmen on the T&I subcommittee also embraced that concept [putting trucks on trains].

If Virginia is going to leverage the efficiencies and economies of investing in rail capacity to stretch our scarce resources, I would invite the CTB, which has ultimate authority for publicly investing in rail, to begin having a formal dialogue with the Rail Advisory Board, including some joint meetings.

Thank you for providing this opportunity for citizen input.