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Sunday, February 10, 2013
On Jan. 31, a team from Roanoke traveled to Richmond to discuss the city’s legislative package with members of the General Assembly. While there, we focused on the proposed transportation bill and specifically the inclusion of returning passenger rail service to Roanoke as a high priority for the Roanoke and New River Valley regions.
While the governor’s transportation proposal is not perfect, it is the first real proposal in decades to provide consistent, steady and secure funding for rail, highways, bikeways, sidewalks and transportation infrastructure. The inclusion of a dedicated revenue source for passenger rail not only benefits the Roanoke Valley but service throughout Virginia as the state now needs to fund Amtrak intra-state services. Virginia could soon have Amtrak to all regions, but without a dedicated funding source, passenger rail service will come to an end. The Norfolk to Richmond line just started operating, and the Lynchburg to Washington line is the most profitable of all state-sponsored Amtrak lines. The success of the Smart Way Connector bus is evidence of Amtrak’s potential in the Roanoke Valley and can be replicated to connect further into Southwest Virginia until passenger rail is extended to Bristol.
The director of the Department of Rail and Public Transportation, Thelma Drake, and her staff enthusiastically told us Roanoke was next on the list for passenger rail because opening up rail to Southwest Virginia was vital to the commonwealth’s overall transportation system. DRPT staff, working with Norfolk Southern and Amtrak, has made significant progress on the design of the route, the turnaround for the train and the location of the passenger loading platform. They pointed out that the package will not only provide for passenger rail, but also bring track upgrades to increase capacity to carry intermodal freight traffic. They assured us that, if legislation was passed with dedicated funding for passenger rail, service to Roanoke could be available within three years.
On Feb. 5, the House of Delegates narrowly passed the governor’s transportation bill. Unfortunately, the Senate was unable to muster the necessary votes to pass a similar version. At this point in the legislative process, the decision whether to enact meaningful legislation to address the critical transportation issues facing the commonwealth and, much more importantly, to bring passenger rail to Roanoke, rests with the Senate.
When we speak with citizens and businesses, it is nearly uniform that the return of passenger rail service to the region is of vital importance to our future.
City leaders know that improved and diverse transportation options for our region are on top of the economic development list, ranking up there with a successful school system and public safety. We also know that with more than 60,000 college and university students, expanding technology and research sectors and a growing tourism industry, passenger rail service will benefit our citizens, visitors and businesses — large and small — throughout Southwest Virginia. Additionally, passenger rail service will provide our older residents, who may have a concern about car travel to Washington, D.C., and points north, an alternative mode of transportation to get to the Northeast. The return on investment of passenger rail service will be enormous for decades to come.
It is critical that our legislators hear from us, the people of this commonwealth, on this statewide issue. From Bristol to Montgomery County to Lynchburg, we need our residents, organizations and municipalities to quickly act and call our legislators about the importance of keeping dedicated rail funding in the transportation package and budget. Sen. John Edwards can be reached at 804-698-7521 and Sen. Ralph Smith at 804-698-7519. Contact information for other senators can be found at www.virginia.gov/senate.
With dedicated passenger rail funding, residents and visitors will be lining up in downtown Roanoke to take a reliable and affordable train to Charlottesville, Washington, New York and on to Boston. Now is the time that we, the citizens, stand together and urge our delegates and senators to get on board because the next stop is Roanoke.
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