State rail projects get boost as driving declines in U.S.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

RICHMOND, Va. -- The federal government is chipping in nearly $30 million for 15 passenger rail projects across the country as Americans continue to drive less and take the train more, U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said Tuesday.

Peters announced the funding Tuesday at the downtown Richmond Amtrak station, one of the sites that will benefit. The projects are aimed at boosting intercity rail capacity and on-time performance.

Also benefiting are two projects each in Vermont, Wisconsin and Illinois; and one each in Arizona, California, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, Ohio and Washington state.

She also released new data showing that Americans, coping with high gasoline prices, drove 9.6 billion fewer miles in July 2008 than July 2007 -- a 3.6 percent decline. July also marked the ninth consecutive monthly decrease in vehicle miles traveled, Peters said.

Meanwhile, transit ridership is up 11 percent and Amtrak carried more passengers in July than in any month in its history, she said.

Peters said the decrease in driving means government must rely less on shrinking gasoline tax revenue to pay for transportation projects, including public transit.

"Federal transportation policies that rely almost exclusively on gas taxes are failing our state and local governments," she said.

So for the first time, federal matching funds are being made available for state and local projects. Previously, all federal rail funds have gone directly to Amtrak.

One of the projects that will receive federal funding is construction of a third track in Spotsylvania County, between Richmond and Washington, D.C. The additional track will eliminate a choke point by allowing passenger trains to scoot around freight trains.

Peters said on-time performance for passenger service between the Richmond and Washington is expected to improve from 76 percent to 80 percent.

"You'll be able to get from Richmond to Washington quicker than driving from Leesburg to Washington," Gov. Timothy M. Kaine said at the news conference. Richmond is about 105 miles from Washington, roughly three times farther than Leesburg.

The federal government will provide $2 million and the state $11 million for the project, which also includes design improvements between two Richmond train depots.

Kaine said the state will use the $2 million saved on the project for other transit plans.

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