Passenger Rail Closer To Becoming Reality

November 20, 2014

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Actual work may not begin until January at the earliest, but the downtown passenger rail station got a ceremonial groundbreaking last week while Governor Terry McAuliffe was in town for a Transportation Conference. McAuliffe, State Senator John Edwards – one of the area’s biggest advocates for passenger rail – Mayor David Bowers and officials from Norfolk Southern and Amtrak also joined the Governor on the podium at the Visitor’s Center/O. Winston Link Museum, which was once a passenger rail station.

The first thing that will need to be done to the passenger rail platform area on Norfolk Avenue – across the tracks from the O. Winston Link Museum – is to build a fortified culvert that can withstand the weight of trains as they pass overhead. City Manager Chris Morrill says a culvert once thought to be a six million dollar project may come in around 3 or 4 million instead. Morrill also said the rail walk motif will be incorporated into the train station design. “We’ve been working on that in partnership with Amtrak and Norfolk Southern … we’ll get the bids back [soon]. From there we will choose a finalist.” Morrill said construction on the “Trout Run” culvert that starts in January could be completed by next June, when they would start to build the actual rail station. As for the notion of passenger rail coming to downtown Roanoke, Morrill said, “Connections are critical for economic development. While we have a good airport and I-81, to have passenger rail just opens up more possibilities for us.” Bowers, who noted how often McAuliffe has been in Roanoke since taking office less than a year ago, said he couldn’t think of anything “more exciting for Roanokers than the return of Amtrak passenger train service. I predict long lines and lots of interest … it will be the talk of the town.

We need transportation connections like passenger train service. Businesses and tourists will come here [by passenger train].” McAuliffe said he was hosting a dinner in Richmond recently, during which he was trying to convince his guest to move some business to the Star City. “Whether I’m here or not I’m still working for Roanoke,” quipped the governor. He also called the coming train service “a big deal … [the first] in 34 years.” McAuliffe thanked Senator Edwards for his efforts to bring the service back to Roanoke. He also joked that he’d like to see the whole state covered by passenger rail before he leaves office in 3 1/2 years – something that will never happen of course.

McAuliffe said when Amtrak does arrive in Roanoke, the city “would be humming” with activity, as visitors get off the train to visit downtown museums and other landmarks. “It opens up the whole community to economic development and new jobs,” said McAuliffe; “[and] this is what I talk about every single day.” With sequestration cuts likely and less state aid for cities forecasted in future years, McAuliffe said localities like Roanoke must maximize efforts to generate their own revenue. “It’s going to be a new economy … [already] 9 billion in cuts [from federal aid] over the last three years.” That’s where passenger rail comes in, McAuliffe noted. Getting people out of their cars and on to trains, he added is “good for the economy, good for the environment – it’s good for everything.” Roanokers and out-of-towners will just have to wait a few more years.

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