For the first time, a delegation of stakeholders representing Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee met at East Tennessee State University Wednesday to discuss ways to bring an Amtrak passenger trail service through the Tri-Cities and possibly on to Chattanooga and Atlanta.
Spearheaded by Bristol, Tennessee, Mayor Margaret Feierabend, the group — unofficially known as the Bristol VA/TN Rail Coalition — believes passenger rail service in the Tri-Cities would provide numerous benefits, including greater mobility, economic development opportunities and tourism.
Among those attending Wednesday’s meeting were officials from ETSU, the City of Johnson City, Washington County, Virginia, Discover Bristol, RAIL Solution and a representative of U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine’s office.
“This is so right on so many levels that we need to just kind of move ahead on it. I’d like to see that coming through Johnson City, of course. That would be a great thing,” Vice Mayor Jenny Brock said. “Count me in.”
For an Amtrak to actually come through the Tri-Cities, several things need to happen, Feierabend said, with the first being the completion of at least one or more studies showing a passenger train service in the Tri-Cities would be viable.
Currently, the consulting firm AECOM is conducting a $450,000 study that will determine the economic impact of bringing an Amtrak passenger service from Roanoke to Bristol.
That study was partly funded through a $250,000 grant from the Virginia tobacco Region Revitalization Commission, a $100,000 grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission and a $100,000 from the Community Transportation Association of America.
The problem, Feierabend said, is the AECOM study will only looking at Bristol and not the Tri-Cities as a whole, which could shortchange the estimated impact the rail service could actually have.
To mitigate that, the group discussed the possibility of doing an addendum study that would expand the scope of the economic impact study, but such an undertaking could cost at least $100,000.
A year ago, Amtrak conducted its own study, which forecast passenger rail service could increase the number of passengers coming from Roanoke to Bristol by 11 percent and grow revenues by 17 percent.
Before anything happens, Feierabend proposed designating someone, either full-time or part-time, who works on the intiative and seeks out possible funding opportunities. One idea she mentioned, similar to the Aerospace Park, is having all the government entities in the region pitch in to fund such a position.
“It doesn’t need a full-time staff necessarily. It needs somebody in some organization that has the job description of working to get this promoted, organized, etc.,” Feierabend said.
Another possible issue is getting buy-in from the Tennessee Department of Transportation. Unlike Virginia, which has the Virginia Department of Rail & Public Transportation, which focuses on railway opportunities, Tennessee has just one transportation entity and its main focus is on asphalt and roads.
“They have a whole separate department, so they’re able to really focus and promote. Whereas, we’ve got to convince the guys who are pouring the asphalt that they should also look at rail tracks,” Feierabend said.
Because Tennessee will soon have a new governor, a new speaker of the House and more than 20 new faces in the Tennessee General Assembly, ETSU Vice President for Community & Government Relations Bridget Baird said there might be opportunities to gain fresh political support.
The next step for Bristol is to await the conclusion of the AECOM economic impact study, which Feierabend said she hope will be completed before the end of the year.
Once that’s completed, a third cost-benefit analysis would then need to be commissioned by the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation. The rail lines, currently being used for freight services, would also need to be analyzed to ensure they meet the proper standards for passenger services.
As far as what can be done now, Feierabend said to spread the word about the Amtrak service, support the current Amtrak service in Roanoke and talk to local legislators.
To learn more about the Amtrak initiative, email Feierabend at [email protected].