Roanoke Rail Link Contingent on Transportation Bill

Roanoke, VA - High winds in Roanoke derailed a visit by Governor Bob McDonnell Thursday. He was supposed to be here to sell his new transportation bill. Instead, he plugged into the meeting by phone.

The address by the governor is a big deal for Roanoke because if Governor McDonnell's bill passes, there is little doubt that passenger rail service from Lynchburg to Roanoke will be a reality.

Just a few months ago, Roanoke Mayor, Democrat David Bowers, was certain that passenger rail service would return to Roanoke in about five years. That opinion has now changed.

"As soon as 2 and a half years," said Bowers.

A long awaited transportation plan that McDonnell says can finally get through the General Assembly. Bowers thinks so too.

"At the end of the session, I think Virginians want this General Assembly to take action on a transportation initiative for Virginia that will keep us at pace with North Carolina and Maryland."

The meat of this bill would strip away Virginia's gas tax - the claim is that inflation is chewing away that money and replacing it with a small increase in the state sales tax.

For Lynchburg's Chamber of Commerce, the extension of train service to Roanoke is so important, that it's one of the top two projects the chamber is pushing.

"You're creating a national network, a national infrastructure and if it cul de sacs in any of our communities then it is not as effective as it could be," said Rex Hammond with the Lynchburg Regional Chamber Of Commerce.

The only other major obstacle is the Norfolk Southern itself. The railroad is concerned about a loss in freight volume and costly infrastructure repairs but still thinks those problems can be overcome.

"The Commonwealth will have to put some money into the improvements, as they did for Lynchburg, and yeah... I think it will happen," said W. Bruce Wingo with Norfolk Southern.

According to reports out of Richmond, there is talk the McDonnell's plan could be in jeopardy because of Republicans in Virginia's Senate.

Earlier this week, while a Democratic Senator was at President Obama's inauguration, a redistricting plan was pushed through the Senate. The governor says he does not endorse the move but he would not automatically veto the bill just to get his transportation bill through.