A passenger on a train near Washington, D.C., in fall 2020.
A passenger on a train near Washington, D.C., in fall 2020. Credit: Graeme Sloan / Sipa via AP Images

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A single new commuter-friendly Amtrak train connecting downtown Richmond with the nation’s capital clearly won’t curb enough pollutants for Virginia to achieve its lofty 2045 net-zero carbon target in the transportation sector.

But the late September opening of a rail route slated to attract 12,600 riders annually is evidence for Danny Plaugher that Virginia is on the right track. The executive director of the nonprofit Virginians for High Speed Rail said it signals how serious the state is about a 10-year, $3.7 billion program to expand and streamline its commuter, passenger and freight rail systems.

“This is the first piece and it wouldn’t have been possible if not for Transforming Rail,” Plaugher said. 

Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, whose administration is the chief architect of the Transforming Rail plan, was among the first to board the new line’s inaugural 5:35 a.m. run on Sept. 27 at Richmond’s Main Street Station. Commuters to Washington, D.C., can catch a same-day train back to Richmond after work.

After COVID-19 shutdowns, “Virginians are slowly returning to trains, so it’s important to get small wins as folks are truly ready to ramp up,” Plaugher said. 

Trip Pollard also envisions a bright rail future in the state where he has delved into clean transportation policy for 24 years. The senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Richmond office is encouraged that, even before Transforming Rail came to fruition during the Northam administration, rail projects had garnered bipartisan support at the state and federal level.

“I hope that will continue,” Pollard said. “It’s widely understood that we’ve got to have alternatives to Interstate 95 if we’re going to reduce carbon emissions and congestion.”

Nearly half of Virginia’s carbon pollution — an estimated 48% — is spewed by fossil fuel-reliant transportation modes.

While Virginia’s ambitious plan to pour millions from a mix of sources into connecting the country’s Southeast and Northeast railway corridors is a “very big deal,” Pollard said it’s equally crucial that policymakers create other all-encompassing blueprints for reining in tailpipe emissions.

That lengthy list includes not only electrifying vehicles of all stripes but designing a user-friendly network of public transport — be it rail, bus, bicycle, scooter or foot travel — that entices people to drive less.

“We have made some progress,” Pollard said. “We’re beginning to grapple with it but we have a long way to go.” 

In 2020, the General Assembly committed to addressing climate change by reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045 in all sectors of the economy, including transportation. Senate Bill 94 also called for an initial 10-year blueprint to be included in the Virginia Energy Plan.

While legislators made a giant carbon-cutting leap forward in the electric power sector with the Virginia Clean Economy Act last year, movement on the transportation front has been pokier.

“It’s a good goal,” Pollard said about net-zero by 2045. “It’s just that right now we don’t have any plan as to how to get there.”

How to get there

A starter piece for such an overarching transportation plan is laid out in House Bill 1965, which the General Assembly passed this year. In a nutshell, the Clean Car Standards law requires manufacturers to deliver more electric vehicles to Virginia dealers beginning in 2025. 

“Clean cars is a huge step,” Pollard said. “But we’re not going to meet the 2045 transportation targets with that legislation alone. Virginia needs to make climate an integral part of its funding and planning decisions.”

The state could piggyback on the success of the Clean Car Standards by enacting two relatively simple measures, Pollard said. One would set emissions standards for fleets of vehicles and the other would set emissions limits for medium- and heavy-duty trucks.

He also emphasized how integral the Commonwealth Transportation Board and the governor’s energy plan can be to transitioning toward greener modes of travel.

The board is responsible for allocating money to specific rail, highway and other projects once the General Assembly sets funding parameters for the blend of federal and state dollars. For fiscal years 2022-27, roughly 73% of those dollars are allotted for highway construction and upkeep.

That funding formula needs to be revised so 50% of all transport funding goes to clean transportation by 2030, Pollard said about the infusion needed to build and maintain infrastructure to allow rail, bus, bicycle and pedestrian travel to flourish.

“For all the progress Virginia makes spending money on electric transit buses and passenger rail, it’s still digging a hole deeper in other places, like highways,” he said. 

While Northam’s four-year energy plan, released in 2018, laid out the clearest clean transportation goals Pollard had ever seen in such a document, “it was nowhere where it needed to be.”

The next iteration, due in 2022, needs to include a detailed roadmap, including in-depth analyses of potential carbon reductions, so progress on markers such as vehicle miles traveled can be realistically measured.

Virginians drove 234 million miles daily in 2019, a 5.4% jump from just under 222 million miles a day in 2014. The coronavirus pandemic threw “normal” travel patterns into such disarray that it doesn’t make sense to use figures from 2020.

Being highlighted in the state energy plan is no guarantee a program will be enacted. Legislators have to garner enough votes for the measures to turn into law.

On a political note, the catch about the next energy plan is that it will be written by the governor Virginians choose on Nov. 2. Northam isn’t on the ballot because the state bars governors from serving consecutive terms. Democrat Terry McAuliffe, governor from 2014-18, is facing off against Republican Glenn Youngkin, a political novice and a former co-CEO of the private equity giant the Carlyle Group.

Results matter because the winner will dictate not only the content of the next energy plan, but also likely whether Virginia joins regional green compacts such as the Transportation and Climate Initiative.

Another relevant election factor is that all 100 seats in the Virginia House of Delegates are up for grabs. Currently, both the House and Senate have slim Democratic majorities.

Northam not yet budging on TCI

Thus far, Virginia has opted not to sign onto an East Coast collaborative deploying a cap-and-invest model designed to pare transportation emissions 30% by 2032, from 2023 base levels. 

Though a dozen or so Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states helped to shape the Transportation and Climate Initiative, only Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and the District of Columbia immediately inked a memorandum of understanding leaders released in December. It requires transportation fuel suppliers to buy allowances at auction for each ton of carbon dioxide produced beyond a certain ceiling.

Lack of momentum has delayed the first auction by a year, to January 2023.

Briefly, TCI is the transportation version of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which was designed to cut emissions in the East Coast power sector and spur a conversion to renewable energy. Virginia became the first southern state to join the latter under Northam’s leadership. As with RGGI, participants in the transportation initiative decide how to spend the millions expected to be generated.

One sticking point on TCI centers on equity. A year ago, initiative organizers proposed investing at least 35% of the proceeds to overburdened and underserved urban and rural communities. Massachusetts and Connecticut are both boosting that percentage significantly.

Virginia supporters have long advocated for setting up an equity advisory council to address that issue. In 2020, the 14-member Virginia Council on Environmental Justice voted to back the state’s alignment with TCI and sharpen its focus on viewing transportation topics through an equity lens.

The concept of capping carbon via TCI is “an attractive one” that his nonprofit has backed, Pollard said, but the state needs to do the groundwork to be able to explain how such a tool would actually work in Virginia.

Lack of the governor’s signature doesn’t mean Virginia has pulled away from the TCI table, Chris Bast, chief deputy director of the Department of Environmental Quality, told the Energy News Network earlier this year.

And that’s still the case because “nothing has changed regarding our status,” Bast, a Northam appointee, said when asked for an update this week.

Earlier, Bast had emphasized that TCI would “work better in tandem with other programs” to drive down transportation pollution. 

For instance, much of Virginia’s distribution of close to $94 million from the Volkswagen mitigation fund has funded charging infrastructure for electric vehicles and municipal electric buses. As well, state gas taxes and federal and state transportation funds can cover green programs as far-reaching as electric vehicle rebates, bike trails and public transit.

Ceres, a Boston-based sustainability nonprofit, is a longtime backer of TCI.

Brianna Esteves, manager of state policy with Ceres, is discouraged that the state government hasn’t yet initiated TCI conversations with stakeholders and communities. Such meetings would help Virginians understand the initiative and prepare for the evolution of a modern transportation system by helping to develop that framework, she said. 

She is also disappointed that the “fossil fuel industry is doing a good job with scare tactics” by repeating messages that adopting TCI means higher prices at the pump.

TCI proponents have acknowledged all along that gasoline and diesel prices could jump between 5 and 17 cents per gallon if suppliers pass along extra costs to consumers. 

Esteves’ Ceres colleague John Carlson said the fixation on gas taxes misses the broader point that suppliers would pay a fee on the carbon content of fuels. Investing in biodiesel, for example, could help fuel companies meet carbon caps.

Still, just the idea of a higher gas tax has some Virginians wary. This summer the state’s gas tax rose to 21.2 cents per gallon from a historically low 16.2 cents. It will increase 26.2 cents next year and then be adjusted to keep pace with inflation.    

Carlson, whose work focuses on TCI, said states in the Northeast are moving forward with the initiative, and “we’ll be ready to meet Virginia with open arms whenever they’re ready.”

‘People don’t want to sit in gridlock’

Plaugher, of Virginians for High Speed Rail, is aware that $3.7 billion seems like a hefty price tag for rehabilitating rail. 

But he emphasizes it’s about one-third of the cost — close to $13 billion — floated a few years ago to add lanes to the eternal I-95 bottleneck between Fredericksburg and D.C.

“Virginia looked at paving its way out of congestion and realized it’s much cheaper and less polluting to do rail improvements,” he said. “People don’t want to sit in gridlock, so we’re going to need other modes of transportation. Rail can give you the same capacity at a fraction of the taxpayer cost.”

Plaugher’s nonprofit was founded by chambers of commerce in Richmond and the Hampton Roads region in 1994 to advocate for reliable rail service linking Virginia to the entire East Coast.

Roughly half of the Transforming Rail funding is earmarked for rebuilding Long Bridge, an antiquated chokepoint for commuter and freight trains crossing the Potomac River. Virginia, local jurisdictions and the federal government will each cover one-third of the $1.9 billion cost to connect the Northeast with the Southeast in a fashion fit for the 21st century.

Construction of a new bridge near the old one is slated to begin in 2025 and be completed by 2030. Its two tracks will be dedicated solely to passenger rail and an adjacent bridge will accommodate pedestrians and cyclists.

The existing 117-year-old steel truss bridge, owned by rail behemoth CSX Transportation, will continue to carry freight trains.

Transforming Rail calls for spending up to $1.8 billion on adding and sprucing up sections of track, as well as repurchasing at least one section sold off to CSX. Much of that funding comes from a portion of the state sales tax and recent increases in the state gas tax. For instance, improvements on the track between Richmond’s downtown station and the nearby suburban Staples Mill Station has reduced travel time by about 20 minutes. 

A key piece of the rail renaissance pledges to more than double Virginia-sponsored Amtrak routes in the Richmond-D.C. corridor by 2030. Some of those routes extend to Norfolk and Newport News.

What excites Plaugher is that travelers don’t need their own cars to travel between the two capitals because both downtown train stations are connected to bike, bus and other transit options.

Virginia-centric Amtrak ridership has climbed to 70% of pre-pandemic levels, he said, adding that he’s confident that it will bounce back fully. With route expansion over the next decade, he still expects to add 2.6 million passengers annually. That would prevent at least 43,000 metric tons of carbon pollution from being released by reducing 165 million passenger miles from the state’s roadways annually.

Plaugher is effervescent about the potential of this statewide rail upturn for the environment, trade and attracting new residents.

“So many answers are going through my head right now,” he said. “It’s like a birthday party where you don’t know which present you want to open first.”

Elizabeth McGowan

Elizabeth is a longtime energy and environment reporter who has worked for InsideClimate News, Energy Intelligence and Crain Communications. Her groundbreaking dispatches for InsideClimate News from Kalamazoo, Michigan, “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You Never Heard Of” won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2013. Elizabeth covers the state of Virginia. Her book, "Outpedaling 'The Big C': My Healing Cycle Across America" is available from Bancroft Press.