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Bills to create passenger rail authority keeps NRV Amtrak plan on track

Bills to create passenger rail authority keeps NRV Amtrak plan on track

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RICHMOND — The Virginia General Assembly has given initial approval to two versions of legislation to create a passenger rail authority in the New River Valley as plans chug along to extend Amtrak to Christiansburg.

The authority would include representatives from several localities and universities in the New River Valley to share the cost of building and maintaining a train station.

The bills from Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, and Del. Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery, have passed their respective chambers without any issues and with support from the governor’s office. The twin measures will have to pass the opposite chamber, and then will head to Gov. Ralph Northam’s desk.

Northam has proposed that the budget include $50 million to support the goal of extending passenger rail service to the New River Valley. The plan also includes adding a second train out of Roanoke.

Transportation officials haven’t had a new update on how negotiations are going with Norfolk Southern Corp. going. There’s no firm timeline for when the state and Norfolk Southern will strike an agreement.

Funding would go toward right-of-way and easement acquisitions and anything that would help reduce bottlenecks to make way for a passenger train in the New River Valley.

“We’ve never been as close as we are in getting this accomplished,” Transportation Secretary Shannon Valentine said.

Valentine said the total cost of the initiative is expected to exceed $200 million. The state will examine other funding sources, including federal grants, and it’s seeking $50 million through Smart Scale, a competitive program that offers state funding to local transportation projects.

New River Valley government and community leaders have been eager to restore passenger rail to the region to boost economic development and provide long-distance transportation for students enrolled at Virginia Tech and Radford University.

“This would really be a boon to our area,” Blacksburg Mayor Leslie Hager-Smith said.

Local officials who have been working on this project for years have identified a location in Christiansburg for train station and platform.

The authority doesn’t state how it will raise the funds, but it could include grants, local and private revenues and bonds.

The ridership on the existing Amtrak train along the corridor out of Roanoke has increased 77% from 2009 to 2019, and it’s the only train in Virginia that has revenue exceeding operating costs.

“We have seen the phenomenal success out of Roanoke,” Hurst said. “The demand is there to increase ridership out of Roanoke, and the New River Valley, too.”

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