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Origainlly posted on Roanoke.com by Matt Chittum
Roanoke’s long-wished-for access to passenger rail is on the way, according to Roanoke Mayor David Bowers. But don’t pack your bags just yet. “You’ll be waiting at the station until 2018,” Bowers added during a meeting Monday morning where the Roanoke City Council laid out its legislative agenda to the local General Assembly delegation. Bowers said he was told by staff from the Virginia Department of Rail and Transportation at a recent conference in Williamsburg that Roanoke is next on the list to get passenger rail service via Amtrak, now that service between Norfolk and Richmond is about to begin. But the timeline was a disappointment because it’s actually three or four years farther out than past estimates. And there’s still no promise of a way to pay for it, the mayor said.“2018?” Bowers said. “I’ll be on Social Security by then.”Moreover, Bowers added, “I couldn’t say I’m confident” it will happen even then.
The 2018 date was news to other council members and State Sen. John Edwards (D-Roanoke), who has long championed passenger rail to link Roanoke to Lynchburg, where an Amtrak train already picks up passengers for Washington, D.C., and stops in between. The city is doing what it can, Edwards noted. The SmartWay bus that currently delivers people to the Lynchburg station is carrying an average of 42 passengers a day, proving there’s a market for a passenger train in Roanoke, he said.And the city has hired an engineer and is already scouting locations for a passenger train station in downtown Roanoke. City Manager Chris Morrill said the most likely location is south of the tracks between Jefferson and Henry streets. Locating it south of the tracks significantly cuts costs for Norfolk Southern, which owns the tracks, and the city, Morrill said. The station won’t be like the grander stations of days past. All that’s needed is a platform long enough to allow access to eight train cars, a place to buy and pick up tickets, and a place for passengers to wait. It’s possible the ticket office could be in Campbell Court, where bus tickets are already sold, Morrill said. That location would unlock more federal funding because it would provide an intermodal hub, he said.
While the city is doing all the right things, and Roanoke has moved up to the top spot the Rail and Public Transportation list, the 2018 date was disappointing to Morrill and other council members.
“We thought we were going in the right direction,” Morrill said.