For the first time in a long time, passenger rail service will return to Roanoke, but City Manager Chris Morrill will tell you getting there wasn't easy. He says he, other local leaders, and community members had to lobby the state hard to get the wheels in motion.
"I think part of it is just consistently letting [state leaders] know how important it is," Morrill said. "Then you have to have the business community on board. Then I think we had to show that as a community we were ready to step up."
Now some leaders in the New River Valley believe the time is right for them to step up and do the same for their community. They say between all the travelers looking for an alternative to Interstate 81 and two major universities with thousands of students, there's definitely a market for rail.
"To me, it just makes sense," said State Delegate Joseph Yost, who represents Virginia's 12th district (Giles, Montgomery, Pulaski, Radford).
Yost and an economic development organization called The Blacksburg Partnership are teaming up to get people fired up about bringing rail service to the NRV; specifically, Christiansburg and Radford because of the existing railroad infrastructure in place in both areas.
"With rail coming to Roanoke potentially by 2015, I think the overall goal is to get it to the New River Valley a couple years after that," Yost said. "Maybe by 2020 at the latest."
But the coalition's first order of business is to put the NRV on the state's radar. The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation is currently taking public input on a plan that outlines the state's rail priorities and goals through 2040. The plan includes a proposal to extend passenger rail service to Bristol years down the road, but there's no mention of the NRV.
"Right now we're really trying to build that base of support among the colleges and universities, among the local government folks, businesses, and hospitals to submit those comments about why they think it's important that we have the option of rail in the NRV."
The New River Valley Planning District Commission, which deals with transportation issues in the NRV, has already drafted a letter it will send to the DRPT, pending approval by its board later this week. In the letter, the group asks DRPT to conduct a feasibility study on this issue within two years and to extend passenger rail west of Roanoke sooner than 2040.
Comments are due Aug. 31. Yost says he and the rest of the coalition will continue to lobby for rail service well beyond that deadline.
"I think it'll take a little bit of time," Yost said. "But with the transportation bill we passed in the General Assembly this year, this really opens up our options to get the ball moving. And there's already a push behind it getting into Roanoke, so if we can continue on that momentum, hopefully we can get it quicker."
Morrill says the city would support expansion of passenger rail west of Roanoke and would be interested in working with NRV leaders to help make that happen.