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Roanoke Free Press
Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Passenger rail service coming to Roanoke sooner or much later

Mayor Bowers calls "all aboard" the Amtrak train.

Mayor Bowers calls “all aboard” the Amtrak train.

On January 24 McDonnell was expected to make a personal appearance in Roanoke to garner support for his transportation package but his airplane was grounded due to high winds. He spoke over a cell phone and PA system.

McDonnell’s transportation package eliminates the 17.5 cent gas tax and increases the sales tax to 5.8%. The .8% increase is to be dedicated for transportation and kept in a lock box. It also dips further into the General Fund. Democrats complain that it takes funds away from education and public safety.

McDonnell appealed to Roanoke’s yearning for the extension of Amtrak train service to Roanoke. His transportation plan allocates at least $100 million for duel tracks all the way to Lynchburg to accommodate a passenger train. The funding includes a passenger train station platform expected to be between Jefferson Street and the Martin Luther King Jr. bridge.

On one of the last slides on the 2014 budget presentation Monday Roanoke City Council members were taken by surprise. Improvements to infrastructure to prepare for the passenger train platform will add $6.1 million to already strained the city’s debt . Culverts between Market Street and 1st Street need replacing.

Passenger train service could come more quickly than expected. Possibly by 2016. Vice Mayor Court Rosen thought it seemed like a lot of money for a culvert. “That’s a lot of money and that sure scares me..” City Manager Chris Morrill said that it is an old culvert that will need repair anyway. The funding for the project will be needed in the next 2-3 years said Amelia Merchant, Director of Management and Budget.

NS_WebNorfolk Southern’s one existing heavily used freight track can’t be shared with a passenger train. “Putting the double track back is very expensive,” said Bev Fitzpatrick, the Virginia Museum of Transportation Executive Director. Whatever comes out of the GA budget needs to have funding for passenger rail if Roanoke is see train service anytime soon.

Fitzpatrick said “the numbers [of riders] are huge between Roanoke and Lynchburg.” A larger bus holding up to 54 people had to be put into service to accommodate the ever increasing ridership to Lynchburg to catch the Amtrak train. Another bus will be added if there is funding. Norfolk Southern is already in the process of adjusting the rails where the platform is expected to be said Fitzpatrick.

The expectation of a quiet 2013 General Assembly session lasted about a week. The session is now said to be rife with ill feelings. Governor Bob McDonnell’s transportation and education plans might be thwarted by the actions of Senate Republicans.

Democrats had threatened retaliatiation for the Senate redistricting amendment tacked on to HB259, a bill that originally only made slight corrective changes to House district boundaries. Senate republicans waited until one Senate Democrat was attending President Obama’s inauguration on Martin Luther King Day to bring the amendment to the floor.

Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling was against the redistricting amendment and said he would not have broken the tie in favor of it had civil rights leader Democrat Henry Marsh been present for the vote - which would have resulted in a 20/20 tie.

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McDonnell said, “Anything to sidetrack [transportation] is not helpful.. I’m doing everything to keep the focus on this.” He reiterated his disapproval of the Senate redistricting plan saying, “It wasn’t how business was to be done here.” He was confident that when it comes down to a major vote on better schools and passenger rail, legislators would focus solely on the issues and not on the other “extraneous issues.”

Wednesday afternoon was the first day of cross-over (House bills go to the Senate and vice versa). The first bill on the House of Delegate’s agenda Wednesday afternoon was HB259, the redistricting bill. After an extended recess and Republican caucus the bill was ruled “not germane” by House Speaker Bill Howell. He said the bill “strayed dramatically from the legislation’s original purpose.”McDonnell didn’t have to wait for the redistricting bill to hit his desk before making a decision on whether to veto it.

Whether this will make a difference in the Senate negotiations on the transportation package is not clear. McDonnell was not confident that he had the votes to pass his transportation package, at least without some modifications. It depends on the voice of the citizens – This is not a Republican or Democrat issue, said McDonnell; “This is not at all a done deal.”

Official and local business leaders listen to Gov. McDonnell at January 24 conference.

Mayor Bowers, a Democrat, took the podium on January 24 eulogizing passenger train service. Later he said he thought “the Governor’s advice to the Republicans in Richmond was sound. In a polite gubernatorial way I heard him say that now is not the time to do these other political shenanigans – now is the time to concentrate of the transportation initiative.”

As of Tuesday the $100 fee for hybrid vehicles was striped from the House bill. The transportation package passed in the House and on Wednesdays cross-over day the Senate have the House bill to consider..

In the Senate, the amendment from Republican Senator Newman substituted a 5.5 percent sales tax at the wholesale level for gasoline and diesel and scraps McDonnell’s proposed overall retail sales tax increase. That amendment failed. Now there is no Senate transportation bill. Governor McDonnell chastised Senate Democrats saying in a statement: “Their partisan, lock-step opposition to fixing transportation is incredibly disappointing. Sadly, the Senate Democrats appear to be the ‘Party of No.’

In a statement President and CEO Joyce Waugh speaking on behalf of the Roanoke Regional Chamber said, “The business community in Roanoke is disappointed that members of the Senate were unable to find common ground on a long-term, sustainable transportation funding plan. Moving forward, we urge the Senate to elevate statesmanship and solution-oriented dialogue above partisanship and divisiveness. We cannot afford to forfeit this opportunity to improve our regions transportation infrastructure and economic competitiveness.”

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