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Last week Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and officials of CSX Transportation announced a proposed $3.7 billion agreement that includes funding for a new Virginia-owned Long Bridge across the Potomac River, with tracks dedicated exclusively to passenger rail.

Virginia’s recently unveiled passenger rail plan includes no provision for expanding service to Bristol, but building a new gateway into Washington, D.C., would allow for future growth.

Last week Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and officials of CSX Transportation announced a proposed $3.7 billion agreement that includes funding for a new Virginia-owned Long Bridge across the Potomac River, with tracks dedicated exclusively to passenger rail.

The plan would bring together federal, state and regional partners — including Amtrak — to fund the proposal, according to a written statement. The Amtrak board of directors has approved a memorandum of understanding with the Commonwealth that outlines its commitment. Pending approvals, agreements could be finalized by the second half of 2020, according to the Northam statement.

Northam alluded to unspecified future expansion in making the announcement.

“We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make our rail system work better for everyone, both in Virginia and along the entire East Coast,” the governor said. “This agreement will change the future of transportation in Virginia, improving our ability to move people and goods across the state and opening up potential rail service in underserved parts of the Commonwealth.”

The current two-track Long Bridge is the only rail link between Virginia and the northeast corridor and operates at 98% capacity during peak times. State transportation officials said earlier this year there could be no expansion of passenger service in Virginia until that issue was resolved.

The District of Columbia’s Department of Transportation is overseeing the project’s study phase, and an environmental impact study was completed this fall. The preferred option is to continue using the existing Long Bridge, build a new two-track rail bridge over the Potomac next to it to handle passenger traffic and use the existing bridge just for freight.

That $1.9 billion option is forecast to take five years to complete, once a decision is reached next year.

The proposed agreement also includes doubling the number of Amtrak trains in Virginia over the next 10 years to improve service and relieve traffic congestion in the I-95 corridor between Richmond and northern Virginia.

While the plan includes no provision for Amtrak expansion to the western portion of Virginia, building the Long Bridge would address a primary impediment to expansion.

A local coalition, which includes the city of Bristol Virginia and Bristol Chamber of Commerce, continues working to attract Amtrak service from its current terminus in Roanoke.

“We are very pleased to see that passenger rail in Virginia continues to be a part of an ongoing conversation and budgetary priorities. We were, however, disappointed that an extension to and through Bristol was not included in the recent report from the governor’s office,” said Beth Rhinehart, president and CEO of the Bristol Chamber. “Opening the access to and through Bristol, and further into Tennessee and beyond, would make a huge positive impact on the economies of these communities and a great alternative for travel — for both business and leisure travelers across the Commonwealth. Bristol is a travel destination, and with the marked increased interest we have seen from the Ken Burns documentary and the proposed casino, this will be an obvious choice for the future expansion of passenger rail in Bristol.”

A May 2019 Community Transportation Association of America study, funded in part by the city, forecasts extending Amtrak service from Roanoke to Bristol could be financially viable. It predicts 23,600 annual riders from a Bristol stop, 16,800 at Wytheville and 40,200 at Christiansburg. The current Roanoke stop has baseline of 97,600 riders and is forecast to lose about 8,400 annually if the other stops are added.

Amtrak figures show ridership between Lynchburg/Roanoke and Washington D.C. rose 7.1% during fiscal 2019, from 206,000 to nearly 221,000, nearly triple Amtrak’s national average growth of 2.5%.

However Norfolk Southern — which owns the tracks between Roanoke and Bristol — withdrew from conversations about expanding passenger service in late 2018 to focus on other aspects of its business. The 2019 Bristol study forecasts more than $30 million in track improvements would be needed to accommodate passenger service between Bristol and Roanoke.



FEATURED GALLERY

dmcgee@bristolnews.com | 276-645-2532 | Twitter: @DMcGeeBHC 

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