Strong ridership growth in the last few years has stretched car capacity, parking and storage space for the $60 million-a-year commuter train line.
“We’ve known for some time this was coming,” said Prince William Supervisor Ruth T. Griggs, R-Occoquan, who serves on the VRE Operations Board finance subcommittee this year.
The 10-year-old system is built for 10,000 daily trips. It grew to 7,000 daily boardings in 1995, had a sharp dropoff in 1997 with a major freight derailment ripping out track, but since recovered with 20 percent growth in 2001 to 13,000 trips, and this year a daily average of nearly 14,000 trips is regular.
The proposed budget calls for the $5.8 million subsidy paid by its nine supporting jurisdictions to go up for the first time in five years by 10 percent, or $600,000.
In fiscal 2003, Prince William is contributing 33 percent, or $1.9 million of the $5.8 million subsidy. Fairfax, the system’s biggest user, contributed more, but the system will need between $12 and $16 million in non-federal capital and operating outlays by 2007 — money that either comes from the state or local governments — to keep VRE growing, Chief Operating Officer Pete Sklannik told the Prince William Board of County Supervisors in October.
That outlay would follow the low-range scenario in VRE’s strategic plan out to 2010 that calls for local subsidies to go up to $16 million so that capital projects can be expanded anywhere from $13 million to $45 million per year. The plan projects demand of 16,000 to 20,000 daily trips.
“We are still have viable option to be a major success for the region. However now with the failure of the [sales tax] referendum we’re going to have to have a more active role in [the federal transportation] reauthorization,” said VRE spokesman Mark Roeber.
The federal TEA-21 bill expires next year and will be rewritten as T3. It sets spending levels to states and localities for a six-year period. “Realistically the jurisdictions will have to be supportive of those initiatives to be a success … On the Hill, we’re going to need their support as well,” Roeber said.
Annual transportation authorizations are also a battle. VRE has $4.5 million for capital expenses in the Senate version this year, but a conference agreement with the House will probably not emerge until January, officials said.
The funding crunch is coming sooner for some. VRE on Dec. 1 ends a price break for riders who board in Stafford at the Brooke VRE station, to the objection of the Stafford county board that passed a resolution asking the change be delayed until April. The station will revert back to Zone 8 prices, which were taken down to Zone 6 prices in 1998 to promote parking at the station instead of at the Leeland Road station that was at capacity. Leeland is at 77 percent capacity, and VRE can no longer absorb the $150,000 loss in revenue, VRE board members said in October.
VRE had gone six years without a fare hike until it raised ticket prices 4 percent in 2001. The latest proposal to raise fares would generate $630,000, offsetting higher access fees by CSX, Norfolk Southern and Amtrak as well as higher Amtrak contract costs.
The local subsidy increase would pay for needed infrastructure costs, such as rail upgrades and locomotive/railcar investments, to replace dollars from a liquidated debt fund that is running out as planned.
Railcars are an immediate need. Used cars like the Gallery cars bought from Chicago were purchased for nearly nothing but took several hundred thousand dollars to refurbish, Roeber said. VRE is looking at another similar used car purchase or new cars that other systems are purchasing — if VRE jumps on it could get the lower prices.
Used equipment has higher maintenance costs and a lifespan of maybe seven to nine years, he said, while new cars have higher upfront costs but less maintenance costs and 40-year lifespan.
“Only if you have money available,” he said.