Today the Transportation Planning Organization (TPO), Hampton Roads' Federally-mandated transportation planning group, held a Retreat.
The meeting began with remarks by Sean Connaughton, Virginia's new Secretary of Transportation. He made clear the importance of regional cooperation on transportation planning: for years he crossed three jurisdictions driving to work, and for a period served as a Prince William County representative on their MPO. With his maritime background, he stressed moving freight in and out of our port. Connaughton emphasized that he wants to complete the deal to build a second tube for the Midtown Tunnel. In addition, he sees increased passenger rail and mass transit as part of our region's transportation solution. Connaughton made clear (please note, VBTA) that mass transit is key to solving Hampton Roads' transportation problems. Connaughton needed to get back to Richmond, so he spoke first and left immediately afterwards.
There was only one speaker under Public Comment: an employee of a Norfolk developer wants the region to seek Federal aid for clearing snow from our roads. His rationale is that it's a military readiness issue: Navy fighter pilots and SEALs would have to report to bases here quickly in case of a national security situation.
Retired military officers spoke on the importance of transportation for the military in the region. One General told Senator Webb that he can't recommend any additional commands be based in Hampton Roads until we tackle our region's transportation problems. In addition, one of the criteria in grading out for shifting commands is (note again, VBTA) mass transit service to the base in question.
Probably overshadowing Secretary Connaughton was what broke out later on High Speed Rail. Speaking was Dr. Alexander Metcalf of Transportation Economics & Management Systems, Inc. (TEMS) of Frederick, MD, the consultant hired by the TPO to help the region land Federal High Speed Rail funding. Dr. Metcalf has 30 years in passenger rail business planning, including having served as Chief Economist for British Rail. Dr. Metcalf gave a fascinating presentation that had to leave you optimistic about our chances with his help.
The problem is a turf battle. After the TPO thought all issues had been resolved, Virginia's Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT) objected again on Wednesday morning. They fear a duplication of efforts by TEMS and DRPT. The issue was tabled pending a later conference call between TPO Executive Director Dwight Farmer, DRPT Director Thelma Drake, Metcalf, and Staff.
Some interesting things from Metcalf's presentation. First, Amtrak's model overestimates the operating costs of High Speed Rail by nearly double, meaning our subsidy payments would only need to be half of what's been discussed so far. Second, he can model and demonstrate that 110-125 mph service makes much more sense for our region than 79-90 mph service. Third, his model estimates that 110 mph service would carry 1.88 million passengers per year between Hampton Roads and Washington by 2025. That would mean 14 trains daily with a capacity of 400 passengers each.