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Virginia governor touts 'game changer' rail and roads initiative

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced that he could no longer "keep quiet" about a proposed $1.4 billion highway and rail expansion project called the Atlantic Gateway, which his administration hopes will win federal government support in the coming days. 

The McAuliffe administration has asked the Department of Transportation to supply a $200 million grant to kick-start the project, money that he hopes will be awarded within "a week or so."

Appearing on the monthly "Ask the Governor" program on WTOP radio Wednesday morning, McAuliffe said his staff has been working quietly on the project for two years, and that if the federal government agrees to provide support,  it "will be the most significant transportation effort in Virginia history."

The proposal includes improving Amtrak rail service statewide, in part by having the state take possession of a CSX freight railroad line and devoting it to passenger rail. 

Currently, rail service is shared between CSX and Amtrak, with CSX traffic taking precedence.

The goal, he said, is for Virginia to be in position eventually to build high speed rail service across the state, as well as to "open up passenger rail from Norfolk and Roanoke."

"I'll have dedicated passenger rail times," McAuliffe said, with "multiple passenger rail [services to those cities] per day."

The plan would also extend the express lanes along Interstate 95 south an additional 10 miles to Fredericksburg, in addition to rebuilding the I-95 bridge over the Rappahannock River just outside of Fredericksburg.

"This is a game changer for the commonwealth," McAuliffe said. The Atlantic Gateway project would be the "most significant thing we have done" for transportation in Virginia.

McAuliffe was clear, however, that the proposed projects can't be started "without the federal grant."

Regarding the number of rail and highway projects included in the proposal, and whether the federal government would be willing to support so many at once, he said his philosophy was "go big or go home."

"If we [get federal approval] in the next week or so, we’ll go immediately ahead," he said. 

"I want shovels in the ground. I want action."

McAuliffe also touched on the continuing controversy over his April 22 executive order restoring certain civil rights to violent and non-violent felons. 

He said he is "confident" he will prevail when the Virginia Supreme Court hears a constitutional challenge filed by Republican House and Senate leaders to the order next month. 

McAuliffe said the case is "not even a close call. I have the authority" to issue a blanket rights restoration.

But he also said he would not be deterred if the state's highest court rules against his action.
If the court "hypothetically" overturned his order, McAuliffe said he would "sign 206,000 individual orders, probably with my autopen, that day," restoring those rights.