VRE says it may need to raise fares or get more money from the county

Virginia Railway Express may need to raise fares or ask for a bigger subsidy from Prince William County in fiscal 2004, even if the proposed half-cent sales tax increase is approved in November.

The commuter rail system is growing faster than the ability to fund it, officials said.

While the referendum would provide $100 million for additional rail cars, more money is needed for parking and operating costs.

VRE Chief Operating Officer Pete Sklannik told the Prince William Board of County Supervisors on Tuesday that it should also be thinking about fare increases and greater local subsidies through 2010 so the system can grow.

“Non-federal subsidies is us, right?” said board Chairman Sean T. Connaughton, R-at large, referring to the county. The answer was yes.

Fairfax, Prince William, Manassas, Manassas Park, Alexandria, Arlington and Fredericksburg all help to fund the rail system along with the federal government.

In fiscal 2003, Prince William contributed 33 percent, or $1.9 million of VREs total $5.8 million subsidy from localities. Fairfax, the systems biggest user, contributed more, but the system will need between $12 and $16 million in non-federal capital and operating outlays by 2007, Sklannick said.

But ridership has increased so dramatically that more money is needed for cars, parking and storage space. The system was built for 10,000 daily trips and is now nearing 14,000. That number could grow to 18,000 immediately if it had more money for rail cars and parking.

Parking lots in Rippon and Manassas are full and expansions are planned for Woodbridge and Rippon.

“We have to make some hard choices, but raising fares would be the last alternative,” Sklannick said later. “We havent decided what actions to take. We have to look at all our options.”

The highest-priced monthly round trip ticket — from Fredericksburg to Washington, D.C. — is $206. A monthly round-trip ticket from Manassas to D.C. costs $169.

Rail officials have already asked for funding from the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, if the referendum passes. It would raise the sales tax from 4.5 percent to 5 percent.

A letter to NVTA Chairman Kenneth Klinge in September asked for $30 million, $40 million and $30 million in the first three years of its operation.

But that will only pay for rail cars. While cars, parking and storage are all capital budget needs, VRE must match federal dollars with 20 percent in local aid. That money comes from its operating budget and would not be covered by the referendum, Sklannick said.

This year no increase in subsidies was requested from Prince William because VRE set aside a special fund. The money runs out this year.

“The VRE is a victim of its own success. It surpassed everyones expectations,” said Connaughton, who is also an NVTA member.

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