Virginia’s newly approved budget includes $83.5 million to support extending passenger rail service to the New River Valley and stipulates a study for connecting Bristol.
The transportation funding budget amendment earmarks $233.4 million to a series of specific projects, including up to $83.5 million to “to extend intercity passenger rail service from Roanoke, Virginia to the Blacksburg-Christiansburg, Virginia area and increase the frequency of intercity passenger rail service along the I-81/Route 29 corridor from Washington, D.C.”
Beyond that, the amendment directs the secretary of transportation to develop an assessment of both the “total project costs and incremental costs” for extending passenger rail to Bristol and to identify any infrastructure or network costs needed to service a rail station in Bedford, Virginia.
That report is due to the chairs of the House Committee on Appropriations and the Senate Committee on Finance and Appropriations by Nov. 15.
On Monday, state Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Abingdon, said passenger rail is important for this region.
“Once the Senate budget was into conference, I began working with the conferees to tie language with the [$83.5 million] funding that requires further study of expanding rail to Bristol,” Pillion said. “I am grateful the conference committee saw the value in adding the language for Bristol and chose to include it as part of our budget. This is the first step to move passenger rail to southwest Virginia, which has been a goal of mine since being elected.”
The cost to upgrade the railroad tracks between Roanoke and Bristol was estimated at $30 million in a 2019 study by the Community Transportation Association of America.
Extending Amtrak service from Roanoke to Bristol could generate 23,600 riders from Bristol, 16,800 from Wytheville and 40,200 from Christiansburg, according to the 2019 study.
Passenger rail service could also help alleviate congestion on Interstate 81, Pillion said.
“As a member of the I-81 Interstate Committee, we are constantly focused on improving the I-81 corridor. Transitioning more traffic to rail is another way we can address the many challenges related to traffic congestion and safety on the interstate, in addition to modernizing our transportation infrastructure both on the rails and on the roads,” he said.
Amtrak began passenger service to Charlottesville in 2009 and extended to Roanoke in October 2017. Ridership peaked at more than 218,000 between Washington, D.C., Charlottesville and Roanoke during fiscal 2018-19, Amtrak records show. However, ridership declined 42.9% along that one route during fiscal 2019-20 amid the global COVID-19 pandemic.
Roanoke has a baseline of 97,600 riders and is forecast to lose about 8,400 annually if the other stops are added, the 2019 study showed.
A group called NRV Passenger Rail has been working for much of the past decade to convince the state and Amtrak to extend service west beyond Roanoke. Roanoke is about 40 miles from Christiansburg, where the proposed New River Valley station would be located. It is about 114 miles from Christiansburg to Bristol.
Norfolk Southern, which owns the tracks between Roanoke and Bristol, withdrew from conversations about expanding passenger service in late 2018.
No expansions are expected until the new Long Bridge project is completed between Arlington and the District of Columbia. The present bridge spanning the Potomac River is the sole rail link between Virginia, the district and the northeast corridor and has operated at 98% capacity for years. Last year, Gov. Northam announced plans for the $1.9 billion bridge expansion project, which is expected to be completed by 2028.