Passenger Rail Service in Roanoke: The Time is Now

July 17, 2008

I think this is one everybody can agree on: bring back passenger rail service to Roanoke! I and many others have had this desire when throwing our hats into the political scene. Once in that scene, however, the picture gets pretty confusing and daunting. This is not just a simple matter. Many before have tried to conquer this task which includes bringing groups with different goals together and lots of money. The Roanoke Valley-Alleghany Regional Commission has worked on this issue as have various economic partnerships. Many politicians have been involved. The most recent attempts- over the last many years- have resulted in the Trans Dominion Express coalition. There have been many surveys (all remarkably supportive- especially recent ones of potential riders), economic and cost analysis reports.

If there ever was a time to strongly revisit this issue- it is now! With gas prices soaring, inflation and other economic woes, a growing elderly demographic with their own transportation needs- not to mention green initiatives/needs and our little traffic problem on I-81- something must be done.

The City of Lynchburg appears to have had success in this area. They have had passenger rail service to DC but now, mostly due to the efforts of grassroot organizations, appear to be slated for increased schedules. It has been said that the same cost to improve their schedule could get Roanoke a start- an intermittent service to Lynchburg and on to DC. I am in favor of at least getting that start. The Trans Dominion Express is a great concept and probably was ahead of it’s time. However starting grand in this economy and with all the trouble Virginia is having with transportation funding,  small steps may be the wisest move and may help show where the needs are. Given the economy, and not to mention business travel and how they are looking for fiscally responsible alternatives, a link from Roanoke to Lynchburg and beyond may be a fantastic start. The economic models produced by the Trans Dominion Express group and the Roanoke Valley-Alleghany Regional Commission are all mostly positive for rail service out of Roanoke and most do not incorporate business travel into their computations.

In addition to a strong grassroot effort in Lynchburg, another reason they appear to be successful is that passenger rail service has been a high priority of their Chamber of Commerce. I believe Roanoke needs a similar strategy and I challenge our Chamber, the newly developed Economic Partnership and any other new or old re-energized grass roots effort to partner with the City, elected leaders and the Regional Commission to begin a hard lobbying effort for a “start” at passenger rail service in Roanoke.

The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transport is starting public hearings on its Statewide Rail Plan this month. They really really need to hear from Roanoke citizens and elected leaders alike. The public hearing in our area is on July 24th at the Salem Civic Center at 6pm. You can contact Jennifer Pickett at 1-804-786-7432 or for more information. I would be more than happy in my role on Council and on the Regional Commission to help coordinate the efforts of any groups willing to be active on this issue and I am certainly aware that there are people and groups out there that know more than I - I am willing to learn and listen to those groups to better push this effort.


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