Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, more in the news recently for a scandal involving gifts now being returned, was in Roanoke City recently for a much happier event.
At a signing ceremony that also included Mayor David Bowers, McDonnell announced that Roanoke, Norfolk Southern, Amtrak and the Commonwealth have started to work together towards the goal of bringing passenger rail service back to Roanoke for the first time in more than three decades.
The General Assembly’s transportation funding plan, pushed for by McDonnell last spring and now signed into law, will help provide the funding for rail line improvements and a passenger rail terminal. McDonnell mentioned a likely 3-4 year time frame before rail service might return; State Senator John Edwards (D-Roanoke), a long time advocate, suggested 2-3 years as a timeline.
“We’re proud to play a role today in starting a new chapter in the Star City’s history,” said Wick Moorman, Norfolk Southern CEO. (Passenger trains will run on NS freight lines.)
Thelma Drake, director of the Department of Rail and Public Transportation for the state, noted that design work and rail capacity analysis between Roanoke and Lynchburg, where passengers would connect to Amtrak, is already underway.
“Virginia does not own a train nor do we operate train service. We use existing rail tracks and we rely on Amtrak to operate Virginia passenger trains,” noted Drake, a McDonnell appointee who was widely praised during the ceremony at Railside Plaza, with a Norfolk Southern locomotive serving as a backdrop.
Lynchburg Amtrak service, bolstered by additional trains in recent years, has turned out to be much more widely used than anticipated. Roanokers can now book Amtrak and Smart Way Connector bus service to the Kemper Street terminal in Lynchburg on a single ticket.
Drake noted that Bowers “set his mind” on having passenger rail service return to Roanoke, “and never let up on that” even when initially there was no state funding available before a transportation funding plan was put in place this spring.
Several other City Council members were on hand as well; Bowers praised them for recognizing that bringing passenger rail service back to the Star City “should be the number one legislative priority and economic development priority for our city. They are to be commended for their foresight and persistence. This is a tremendous accomplishment for our Commonwealth and the Roanoke Valley, and for our Star City.”
Bowers, a Democrat, praised Republican Governor McDonnell for his leadership on transportation funding. The General Assembly legislation involved compromises and split votes, “and was not a pretty thing to see,” said Bowers, but it will help usher in a new era of passenger rail service here. He also singled out Edwards for his legislative push to include service to Roanoke, along with efforts to extend it elsewhere in Virginia.
Bowers gave McDonnell a key to the city at the event. The Governor praised legislators for “turning down the rhetoric” to come up with a transportation funding plan.
“It really is a big day,” said McDonnell, who took part with Bowers and others in a signing ceremony after speaking from a podium. He also thanked Bowers and Edwards for keeping the faith “to make sure that this day would come. It was really a team effort.”
Whether its 3-4 years as McDonnell estimated or 2-3 as Senator Edwards figures, the train is coming back to Roanoke. McDonnell said he would like to come back as the ex-Governor to ride on that first passenger train. “We’ll [soon] have the ability to get on a train right here and go to Boston or New York – or wherever you want to go. I think that’s going to be terrific for the quality of life in the Star City.”
By Gene Marrano