Highlights of RAIL Solution’s Year 2013

National Activity Summary

MAP-21, as the “Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century” federal transportation act passed in 2012 has become known, is little more than an old-fashioned highway bill. All the creative, multimodal features of the Senate draft were stripped away in conference with the House. We have worked hard to promote rail under these difficult circumstances.

On March 5 RAIL Solution executive director David Foster went to Washington for a public meeting entitled “Freight in America” sponsored by the U.S Department of Transportation (USDOT). MAP-21 mandated formation of a National Freight Policy Council, a National Freight Network, and eventual development of a National Freight Plan. While all of these sound useful and relevant, they are all highway only. Foster spoke at the DOT session, lamenting the failure to include rail.

In March U.S. Congressman Albio Sires (D-NJ) and a group of co-sponsors, all Democrats, introduced HR-974 (the “MOVE Freight Act of 2013”) to amend MAP-21 and restore a multimodal focus. We devoted time and effort seeking Republican co-sponsors for the bill in the House, without success.

MAP-21 also mandated a Truck Size and Weight Study. Board member Robinson Foster in Oregon spearheaded RAIL Solution’s input and developed key contacts at the Federal Highway Administration. This led to an invitation to RAIL Solution to send a delegation to Washington for a high-level meeting at FHWA in June. Though we have yet to see any tangible results, there is always benefit from making the case for freight rail and the Steel Interstate concept to key transportation policy-makers and we welcomed the opportunity.

On a more encouraging note, the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee is now headed by two congressional representatives from the I-81 Corridor. Rep. Shuster (R–PA), committee Chairman, covers a portion of I-81 in the Carlisle-Chambersburg area, and Rep. Duncan (R–TN), Vice Chairman, covers a key section in eastern Tennessee between Knoxville and Bristol. We aim to exploit this change to secure greater attention to problems in the I-81/I-40 Corridor.

Over the summer, the Committee established a special Freight Panel under the leadership of Rep. Duncan. The Panel held hearings in various cities and took written comments as well. Knoxville Board Member Pete Lotts wrote over 40 pages of material for RAIL Solution to submit to the Duncan Panel, relating to a Steel Interstate pilot project in the I-81/I-40 Corridor where trucking density remains among the highest in the nation.

During 2012-2013 RAIL Solution engaged an outside consultant to construct a computer model to evaluate the financial returns from railroad electrification. Board member Jeff Price in Pennsylvania led this effort and personally funded 20% of the development cost. We hope availability of the model will help us engage U.S. railroads in serious discussion of electrification. In October executive director David Foster met with a top executive of the Kansas City Southern Railroad, in an appointment arranged by Board member Ken Marsh of Kingsport.

Regional Activity Summary

A key to making progress in Virginia has been a good relationship with the Department of Rail and Public Transportation Director Thelma Drake and head of rail operations, Kevin Page, have been both excellent resources. In March a RAIL Solution delegation traveled to Richmond to meet with Drake and Page. Throughout the year we have stayed in touch to push plans for restoration of passenger rail to Roanoke. At our Annual Meeting in early November, DRPT sent a representative to explain proposed track layouts for the new Roanoke Amtrak service. Funding is in place to start service in a few years. Now we must focus attention on the New River Valley and points west.

Also in March David Foster and Vice Chair Michael Testerman represented RAIL Solution at the I-81 Corridor Coalition annual conference in Hagerstown, MD. We have been a participant in the Coalition since its founding and find that we need to have a continued presence and involvement to keep pressure on the Coalition to be multimodal in its focus. Capacity problems on I-81 are caused by too many trucks. The solution lies with rail, not more highway widening. The Coalition has the potential to coordinate I-81 planning beyond the borders of individual states, where longer distances improve the competitive prospects of rail, and we will continue to push for this approach.

In April RAIL Solution had a booth at the Knoxville Joint Rail Conference sponsored by American Society of Mechanical Engineers and University of Tennessee. Our display, assembled and maintained by Michael Testerman, features a video presentation on the Steel Interstate as well as a number of eye-catching posters and exhibits. Board members Ken Marsh, Pete Lotts, and Jeff Price attended, as well as our Pennsylvania electrification consultant Jack Grocki, who was a presenter on the first day of the conference.

Throughout the year in Virginia RAIL Solution has had opportunities to comment at public hearings and to submit more detailed written statements. Virginia updated its long-term multimodal transportation plan known as VTRANS2035, and also issued a State Rail Plan and a Multimodal Freight Plan. In all of these visioning documents Virginia touts the advantages of multimodal planning, of corridor-wide planning and analysis, and the need to improve the environment. So far these things look good only on paper but are not reflected in the reality of real-world construction projects.

Though Interstate 81 has been identified in the above studies as a Corridor of Statewide Significance and deserving of special planning scrutiny, VDOT continues to progress piecemeal proposals to widen the highway to 8 or 12 lanes. The first of these, known as Segment of Independent Utility #4, covers the part between Exit 118 and Exit 150. RAIL Solution has prepared comments several times in this case, emphasizing the gap between VDOT’s traffic projections used to justify the project and VDOT’s own traffic counts.

Another example where Virginia has not walked the talk is the proposed U.S. 460 expressway east of Petersburg. The road project is opposed by local residents, unneeded, and would impact hundreds of acres of wetlands. If future new capacity to and from the Port of Norfolk is needed, it can be constructed at much lower cost, both economically and environmentally, by expanding the parallel Norfolk Southern rail line. Continued vigilance in combating such highway-centric planning will continue to be an important part of our work.

The Pennsylvania Long Range Transportation Plan is currently under way with a key adjunct being a State Freight Plan. RAIL Solution is participating actively in these efforts and has been in regular attendance at PennDOT webinars. We have urged the state to fully include and consider the state’s railroads in developing the Freight Plan.

Operational Highlights of 2013

This fall the Board of Directors conducted a visioning exercise as part of our planning. At the suggestion of Board member Ken Marsh, we have made a governance change by establishing five key Working Groups. We hope this will expedite the handling of business and keep every matter from having to be heard by the whole Board. Meetings of these groups will be monthly by phone. We want very much for members to come forward and volunteer to assist in these five Groups:

Government Relations & Advocacy

Freight & Passenger Carrier & Shipper Relations

Public Education & Partnership Development

RAIL Solution Internal Organization

Concept Development

 Over the summer Board members Rucker Keister and Pete Lotts developed a redesigned RAIL Solution website to be timely, user-friendly and inviting to all. We continue to seek to actively engage our supporters through our web sites and facebook page.

Our dedicated Treasurer from Maurertown, VA, Walter Clark passed away after a long battle with cancer. We are fortunate that Bob Peckman of Roanoke has taken on the Treasurer duties.

Our founding member and longtime Chair Rees Shearer declined to continue as Board Chair for 2014. He will continue to serve as a Board member but we will miss his inspiration and leadership.

Vice Chair Michael Testerman was asked to be an advisor to a project by the Virginia Tech architecture and landscape student Design Studio in preparing conceptual designs for the new Roanoke passenger station. Student renderings were on display at the recent RAIL Solution Annual Meeting in Roanoke.

The Annual Meeting in November generated some gratifying media coverage. Two Roanoke TV stations – WDBJ and WSLS – covered the meeting and WDBJ’s news broadcast showed many close-up views of the Virginia Tech team’s excellent designs.

Professor Richard Rusk of Blacksburg, VA, a life-long champion of energy efficiency and other environmental causes, has named RAIL Solution in his will as a recipient of 25% of his estate. Rusk, a long-time member and generous contributor to RAIL Solution, died on August 23, 2013 at the age of 97. Rusk was an associate professor and assistant head of the Physics Department at Virginia Tech, where he worked from 1949 until his retirement in 1982. RAIL Solution plans to work with the Physics Department at Virginia Tech to place a memorial plaque in honor of Professor Rusk.

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