Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Passenger rail service and uranium mining top legislative agenda

Delegate Greg Habeeb and Councilman Dave Trinkle

As in past legislative sessions Roanoke City Council is pushing for state funding for passenger rail service between Lynchburg and Roanoke. City manager Chris Morrill stressed that the city needs rail service to satisfy industries that are eyeing Roanoke’s accessibility.

To make Roanoke’s multi-year dream come true the Commonwealth will have to unearth a dedicated revenue source. Amtrak’s rail service to Washington, D.C. and Boston is profitable said Senator John Edwards. Sen. Edwards has been a driver for rail service from Roanoke for many years and was responsible for garnering funding for the Smart Way Connector bus from the Roanoke Civic Center to Lynchburg. Passenger demand for the bus has proven that rail service to Roanoke would be profitable said Edwards.

Other legislators present included Sen. Ralph Smith, Delegate Greg Habeeb, Delegate Onzlee Ware and Delegate Chris Head. Dick Willis Roanoke City School Board member and Superintendent Rita Bishop asked for legislation again this year to allow Roanoke City schools to open prior to Labor Day. The House passed it. Delegate Habeeb said the holdup is in the Senate Education Committee where it failed by two votes. He felt like Senator Steve Newman could be one of two Senators that might change his mind. One more vote is needed he said. If it gets to the Senate floor Senators Smith and Edwards would vote for it.

Mayor Bowers and Sen. John Edwards discuss passenger rail.

The improvements Norfolk Southern is making to freight rail lines is expected to make it easier to eventually adapt rails for passenger service. The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation told Mayor David Bowers that the timeframe looks to be 2018 or beyond. Roanoke is next in line for passenger rail he said but “the funding isn’t there yet.” Bowers asked legislators to seek an expedited funding source to bring the service sooner. “This just isn’t a nice to have … it is key to our economic future.”

Sen. Smith saw a glimmer of hope for funding in a bill being introduced by Senator John Watkins  of Powhatan. Watkins is considering proposing a bill to raise the wholesale gas price by 5 percent for transportation. Watkins’ bill however would eliminate some motor fuel sales tax exemptions and put a halt to the idea of tolls.

Since the advent of Local Aid to the Commonwealth was enacted Roanoke City has sent back $13 million to Richmond said director of finance Ann Shawver and $1.2 million is due this fiscal year. All localities are asking to end the state subsidy. “It makes it look like we have more money than we have,” said Edwards agreeing that it should end. What irked Councilman Bill Bestpitch was the end of year budget surplus that the state enjoys at the city’s expense.. “Part of that surplus is directly due to the fact that localities are sending money back to Richmond,” he said. “It’s particularly frustrating to not to share in it at all.”

Curtailing the use of plastic bags is also on the agenda again this year. Morrill explained the nuisance they create for city workers servicing the parks and Greenway. “It looks like trees are growing plastic bags.” Reusable bags are the answer said Morrill. Delegate Ware said that the industry will fight it. “We’ve got to give them some type of incentive to make a better plastic bag,” said Ware. He said it was a good bill though and would introduce it again this year.

Lifting the uranium mining ban was a hot topic that took up more time than any other issue. Bestpitch referenced the completed study on mining regulations saying that there were still too many unanswered questions. Lea made the argument that since Roanoke was within 50 miles of Cole Hills that it would deter businesses from locating in Roanoke. It could contaminate the Roanoke river and produce airborne radioactive dust. Delegate Ware said that Virginians were divided on whether the ban should be lifted. “It’s an interesting issue – one of the toughest we will face but it’s not clear cut,” said Ware. “That’s not to say which way I’m going to go.”

There was no bill introduced at the time but by the end of the day Monday Senator John Watkins had introduced a bill to lift the ban. It was reported that Watkins received $2,000 in campaign contributions from Virginia Uranium. Delegate Ware has served on the Uranium Mining Subcommittee and has been a recipient of a trip to France provided by the lobbying arm of Virginia Uranium. The trip was arranged to allow legislators to see firsthand that the mining of uranium can be safe. Ware also toured a uranium mining operation in Saskatchewan, Canada that was financed by Virginia Uranium.

Senator Edwards said with the abundance of natural gas there is a diminished business need to to mine uranium. “The risk/benefit is just not there,” he said. “The risk could be enormous.” Edwards said he would not vote to lift the ban.

Posted By Valerie Garner

Categories: Politics, Roanoke City Politics, State Politics

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