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Fredericksburg’s VRE payment to increase in 2014

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The Virginia Railway Express Operations Board on Friday closed out 2013 by approving its fiscal year 2014-15 budget, which is expected to increase by $35 million.

Notably, the budget calls for Fredericksburg’s subsidy for the commuter rail service to Washington to spike by more than 35 percent.

The meeting also produced updates on the Spotsylvania County station and access fees to use CSX tracks, funding for which VRE officials have been worried about losing.

While the board didn’t make any formal moves on the Spotsylvania station, the budget puts its expected completion date at October, which would push the opening to nearly a year behind the original schedule.

The station is going to be built in the Crossroads Industrial Park off the U.S. 17 bypass. A new third set of tracks also will be built. That track will run from the new station to the area near the Fredericksburg station.

VRE and Spotsylvania officials originally planned to have the station open by the end of this year. But there have been numerous issues that delayed the project.

Acquiring land for a 1,500-space parking lot has been the latest obstacle. In November, VRE board member and Spotsylvania Supervisor Gary Skinner said they hoped to open the station by June. At Friday’s meeting, he mentioned the expected completion date of October, but said he hopes the station opens earlier.

“We are working with the landowners,” Skinner said.

On a positive note, Doug Allen, VRE’s chief executive officer, said work on the third track should start next week.

On another positive note, Allen told the board that VRE is making progress on an agreement with the state on track access fees.

Commuter rail officials had been concerned that VRE would lose millions in federal funding for access fees to use the CSX tracks. The fees are expensive—in fiscal 2014 the fees total $14.8 million, with federal funds covering 65 percent of the cost.

Allen said VRE appears to be close to a six-year agreement that would be in line with funding levels the commuter rail provider has received in the past.

That funding was based on a year-to-year basis, so the agreement “looks like it’s gonna be a good thing for us,” Allen said.

As for the fiscal 2015 budget, it was approved unanimously, but Fredericksburg representative and city council member Matt Kelly voiced his displeasure with the subsidy spike.

The city’s subsidy is set to increase from $427,700 in fiscal year 2014 to $581,200 in fiscal 2015.

Subsidies for Stafford and Spotsylvania also would increase, but by about 6 percent each, a much lower percentage than the city’s increase. The counties have many more riders, so they pay more in subsidies.

While Fredericksburg would still net $1.2 million in fiscal 2015 from the VRE gas tax, Kelly said the increased subsidy could “become an issue” in the future.

The upcoming budget, which has to be approved by the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission and the Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission, would total $128 million. That would be an increase of $35 million over the current budget.

There is no fare increase included in the fiscal 2015 budget.

Lawsuit filed against VRE mobile ticket vendor

The company chosen by the Virginia Railway Express to launch its mobile ticketing service has been sued by a company that lost out on the contract.

According to a Washington Post story, New York-based Bytemark filed a lawsuit this week in Alexandria’s U.S. District Court alleging patent infringement by Portland, Ore.-based GlobeSherpa.

In September, VRE awarded a $3.1 million contract to GlobeSherpa to design and administer the mobile ticketing system. The new mobile system will allow VRE passengers to download a free app so they can buy and validate their tickets by simply tapping on their smartphone screens.

Shortly after the contract was awarded, Bytemark’s Chief Executive Micah Bergdale sent a protest letter to the commuter rail service saying that VRE chose “an unproven vendor with an untested product.”

He also said that GlobeSherpa’s bid was higher than Bytemark’s and that the Oregon company was given an unfair advantage because VRE “inadvertently” identified Bytemark as a competitor to GlobeSherpa representatives.

But the most important issue, Bergdale wrote, was patent infringement.

The Sept. 20 presentation to the VRE Operations Board, Bergdale wrote, was “a demonstration of the technology and solutions that Bytemark has developed over many years and that we have both a current patent issued for along with patents pending that would further encompass the mobile ticketing solution that GlobeSherpa has tried to pass off as its own.”

VRE’s Chief Executive Officer, Doug Allen, doesn’t appear to be concerned about the lawsuit.

“These unproven allegations,” he told the Post, “do not change the evaluation of the proposals nor the award decision.”

Scott Shenk: 540/374-5436

sshenk@freelancestar.com

 

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