The only thing louder than the whistle of an Amtrak train right now is Bristolians’ excitement over the successful results of the passenger rail service feasibility study.
We are finally seeing notable progress on the proposed expansion of commuter train service extending from Roanoke to Bristol Train Station. With the recent completion of Amtrak’s economic feasibility study as reported in the Bristol Herald Courier on Sunday, only two studies spanning approximately three years remain before the project may be considered for initiation.
And though we previously contemplated possible issues with bringing passenger rails back (for example, that any increase in coal freight from federal coal legislation rollbacks could affect rail availability for passenger trains), these don’t seem to be active concerns at the moment. Another plus for Bristol.
Bristol also has a nest of offerings, from the logistics (for example, a remodeled train station) to the surrounding morale. Though the outcome of this proposal is to be determined, it’s safe to say the outlook of Amtrak here seems bright.
The potential prosperity must motivate us to keep that momentum going. And when we say “us,” we speak particularly to the other half of the Twin City. Bristol, Virginia, can’t do this alone, after all.
Both Bristol, Tennessee, and the state of Tennessee need to be more involved in the oversight of the Amtrak venture. The financial demand, prospective benefits and advantages for the state’s transportation goals demonstrate grounds for commitment.
A prime opportunity for the city’s other half to assist comes in light of the financial reality of Bristol, Virginia. Funding for help from the Industrial Development Authority was originally factored in to the 2017-18 budget for Bristol, Virginia, but the current draft omits this allocation. With that amount now being redistributed elsewhere, the shortage could threaten or at least stall the project for the interim — unless the silent partner can offer to pick up some slack.
Consider what a revolving amount of travelers could mean for the local business climate. The rail extension involves the Northeast Regional trains, the busiest of Amtrak’s trains. Estimating from the overachieving success of the previous rail expansion into Lynchburg and Amtrak’s projected profits from increased ridership, both sides of Bristol can expect some exceptional incoming revenue. Let’s also entertain the concept of transit-oriented development, where mixed-use establishments (retail, food, entertainment and the like) emerge around public transit and make the walkability of the neighborhood itself a destination. The increased foot traffic and potential to attract new businesses means Bristol, Tennessee, really should invest in the project to see its share of the benefits.
A broader view with the state’s responsibility should look in the direction of the Department of Transportation, if only because its support can encourage a mutually beneficial payoff between rail service and its own projects. According to the TDOT’s website, all of its 19 transportation projects in Northeast Tennessee (what they call Region 1) are highway or infrastructure-oriented. Rail service in Tennessee currently exists only along the state’s western border. That means that any TDOT discussion about passenger rails has nothing geographically to do with us, and any discussion about our region only involves our roads.
Instead, the TDOT should refocus with Bristol’s rail service potential in mind because it could alleviate highway congestion. Most of the transportation projects in our region involve highway expansion. If travelers were diverted to rail service, a marked percentage of vehicles would be off the roads, thereby easing traffic, the impact on highway infrastructure and maintenance and potentially the number of vehicular accidents.
For Tennesseans, the idea of potentially defining Bristol as a transportation hub with rail, road and flight access should be more than enough to entice.
We and Bristol residents want to see this project accelerate, but it needs at least the whole city if not the state to get on board.