‘Incredibly important to our long-term viability’: More rail investments coming to Southwest Virginia

March 3, 2021 12:01 am

An Amtrak train in Richmond. (Scott Elmquist/ Style Weekly)

Although the General Assembly approved a $83.5 million budget amendment this session, in part to extend passenger rail service deeper into Southwest Virginia, that doesn’t change the fact that there isn’t a train station or even a platform in the New River Valley. However, legislation from local lawmakers that is heading to the governor’s desk aims to fix that by creating a new regional body to raise money for the facility.

If signed by the governor, SB1212 from Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke and HB1893 from Del. Chris Hurst, D-Blacksburg, would create a New River Valley Passenger Rail Station Authority encompassing the members of Virginia’s Planning District 4. The resulting partnership between the City of Radford, the counties of Floyd, Giles, Montgomery and Pulaski as well as the three universities in the area would be “authorized to enter into revenue sharing agreements and to issue revenue bonds” towards the goal of building a platform or a station to serve the region. 

Localities lead the way

As state officials hammer out the final details of the deal with Norfolk Southern to extend Amtrak service beyond Roanoke, the new authority could prove a critical local partner.

“The station authority will be so helpful because they will be a regional group that will be able to pool resources, potentially own property and work together to get the station built,” said Jennifer Mitchell, director of the Department of Rail and Public Transportation. “We haven’t worked out a formal partnership agreement with the localities yet, so having an authority out there would be beneficial so we can work with one entity to organize the surrounding amenities.”

The New River Valley Rail Station Authority will also be the first of its kind in the commonwealth. Previous passenger rail expansions never enjoyed such a coordinated regional effort to roll out the red carpet to new train service. For a line extension from Petersburg to Hampton Roads the City of Norfolk took the lead. When passenger rail came to Roanoke, the state created the platform and left the city responsible for building the station.

 “The idea of a new station grew out of the localities. They wanted an authority that has the ability to raise funds to build and to operate a rail passenger station,” Edwards said. “So far, they’ve raised around $360,000 a year — 78 percent of that from Montgomery County, the towns of Blacksburg and Christiansburg and Virginia Tech. The other localities make up the rest. That would be enough to build and operate a $4.2 million station over time.”

Without such deep regional cooperation, the New River Valley would never be able to afford a new passenger rail station, said Larry Hincker, spokesman for New River Valley Passenger Rail, an advocacy coalition that grew out of the Blacksburg Partnership. “If you look at rail stations along the way like Lynchburg and Roanoke, they’re all in municipalities that have the financial wherewithal to build out the rail platforms and the station. If you look at the New River Valley, however, you see that there isn’t a single locality that has the financial capacity to build out the actual station and the platform on its own. Therefore we need to create an authority to organize this and to do that we need the General Assembly’s permission.”

The establishment of the rail station authority has been a long time coming. “After six years of working to improve passenger rail into the region, now virtually every municipal organization in the New River Valley, all the counties, cities and towns, the metropolitan planning organization, Virginia Tech and Radford [University], Sens. Kaine and Warner as well as our local delegate and senator all support the extension to Christiansburg,” Hincker said.

All aboard

The popularity of Virginia’s existing train service to its southwest has made further extensions easy to love. “The Roanoke line has been one of the most successful lines in the country when it comes to state-supported service,” Mitchell said. “The revenues the trains have brought in actually cover the entire cost of the service. Ridership has doubled to over 220,000 since its launch, and a recent forecast found we would add 83,000 riders on this line by extending it to Christiansburg.”

With increasing truck traffic worsening driving conditions on I-81, many New River Valley residents view passenger rail as an easy and affordable alternative to head north. As relatively less car-centric university students comprise nearly a quarter of the region’s population, the underlying demographics of the area point to strong rail ridership growth. A new Tech campus in Northern Virginia has only added to the region’s desire to be better connected to Northern Virginia.

“We’re a relatively remote part of the state, so we know that the transportation lines into this region are incredibly important to our long-term economic viability,” Hincker said. “50 percent of the enrollment of Virginia Tech comes from points north, so as this country continues to adopt and promote greater train travel we see this as an important connection to the rest of the East Coast where passenger rail is super popular.”

Ridership data supports local leaders’ focus on creating more convenient connections to the Northeast. The top destinations for riders from the New River Valley are Washington, Philadelphia, Boston and New York City, according to Hincker. Currently, the morning train from Roanoke to D.C. departs at 6am and takes 4.5 hours. One of the next steps will be for DRPT to work with Amtrak to identify a Northeast Regional that could be extended to Christiansburg.

High-speed rail plans being developed in Tennessee, Georgia, and at the federal level envision a future connection to the southeast as well — all the way to Atlanta via Chattanooga. Even Virginia has a study in the works on a route extension, called the Commonwealth Corridor, as far southwest as Bristol.

For now residents of the region are just happy to have passenger rail service and the associated train station in the works. “We’re very excited about extending Amtrak to western Virginia,” Edwards said. “We can’t continue to expand the interstate. It’s important for the economy and the health of the environment to shift traffic and shipping onto trains.”

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Wyatt Gordon
Wyatt Gordon

Wyatt Gordon covers transportation, housing, and land use for the Mercury through a grant from the Piedmont Environmental Council and the Coalition for Smarter Growth. The Mercury retains full editorial control. Wyatt is a born-and-raised Richmonder with a master’s in urban planning from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa and a bachelor’s in international political economy from the American University in Washington, D.C. Most recently he covered transportation as Greater Greater Washington’s Virginia correspondent. Previously he’s written for the Times of India, Nairobi News, Honolulu Civil Beat, Style Weekly and RVA Magazine. He also works as a policy manager for land use and transportation at the Virginia Conservation Network. Contact him at [email protected]